“We need to be seen. Our lives matter,” Nina Marinez says during a panel at an October 14 event hosted by the Youth HIV Policy Advisors (YHPA).
Marinez, who was diagnosed HIV-positive at the age of 8, was one of 11 young adult HIV-positive policy advisors at the “Here are the facts – Have our backs” luncheon earlier this month, where local community leaders and elected officials were invited to hear about the YHPA initiative.
Marinez’s simple yet powerful statement is met with a round of applause. She has succeeded in capturing not only the spirit of the audience, but also the central mission of the YHPA program: to break the barriers that surround accessibility to treatment and education for HIV/AIDS, and to share the stories of those living with the disease.
Launched last April by Georgia Equality, the YHPA program was created as a resource for the thousands of people living with HIV and AIDS in Georgia. The program is not only an effort to fight the rising HIV/AIDS epidemic in Georgia, but also to give youth people living with HIV an opportunity to share their stories and work one-on-one with policymakers to address policy changes they see as vital to address many aspects of living with HIV/AIDS.
The young policy advisors want to address issues such as the cost of medication (which can reach upward of $3,000 per month) and how to make treatment more accessible for those without health insurance. As someone who grew up with HIV, Marinez said she has personally experienced the critical role health insurance plays: “I was considered a waste of taxpayer dollars. I had to go to school to get insurance and stay alive.”
The Oct. 14 luncheon was organized and led entirely by youth involved and training as policy advisors and advocates — and was just the beginning of the YHPA program. The real work of identifying necessary policy changes and creating new policies will take place in the next few months, and on Dec. 1, World AIDS Day, the participants will present their 2016 Youth HIV Prevention & Care Policy Agenda to a larger group of community leaders and elected officials.
One such official, Ceasar Mitchell, Atlanta city council president, voiced his ongoing support for the program: “It’s important for elected leaders to have a better understanding of young people who live with HIV. Young people are the future.”
At 19, D’Jona King is the youngest Youth HIV Policy Advisor. King was diagnosed HIV-positive at the age of 15. As a teen, who attended high school in the metro-Atlanta area, living with the disease, she understands the value of the YHPA program better than most: “If you target the youth, you can help them learn how to take of themselves and the next generation.”
Coming soon: D’Jona’s story and more coverage of HIV and teens in Atlanta.