When Monica Johnson found out she was HIV positive more than 30 years ago, people in her Louisiana, USA community would cross the street to avoid her. She received phone calls telling her she should leave town. In 1985 she received a letter that the person whose blood she received during a hospital stay the previous year had died of AIDS. Four years later, Monica learned she was pregnant and her son, Vaurice, was born HIV+ in 1990. He died three years and six months of age from HIV/AIDS complications.
Johnson is fearless, despite all she’s faced. Even in 2017, there are still some who would rather not be seen with her. Johnson says she uses her status as an ice-breaker, “For me I tell people right up front because I want you off my island if that’s not where you want to be.”
Staggered by the lack of services and constant stigma, she founded an organization called Heroes: Helping Everyone Receive Ongoing Effective Support that does exactly what its name promises. She is hyperfocused on improving the physical, economic and social health of people affected by HIV/AIDS in rural Louisiana.
Johnson’s work as a community activist and service provider for HIV/AIDS clients is more critical than ever. The HIV epidemic is not going away. In a recent article in The Advocate, reporter Andrea Gallo writes, “Rural regions throughout the state account for more than 15 percent of Louisiana’s HIV and AIDS cases, (HEROES research and development director, Linda Meredith’s) research shows, using data from the most recent years available. Louisiana cannot solve its HIV epidemic without focusing on those regions, she said. “Thirty-plus years into the epidemic and still, the stats in the rural areas are about the same or primarily worse,” said Monica Johnson, the founder and executive director of Heroes. “Nobody was ever able to take a look at it like this.”
HIV/AIDS in the south of the United States remains a critical issue. Southerners are more likely to get HIV and they are dying at higher rates of AIDS than the rest of the country. Funders Concerned About AIDS executive director, John Barnes said “Forty (40) percent of all people living with HIV in the U.S. live in the South. Yet the region received just 18 percent of total HIV-related philanthropy in 2015.” Young people between the ages of 13-24 make up the majority of new infections. Poverty, stigma, racism, homophobia, lack of access to medical services and insurance are all part of the problem facing these vulnerable communities. That’s why the Southern HIV Impact Fund was formed. Prevention; care and support; and policy, advocacy and movement building are the key areas of focus. Organizations like HEROES – operating at the heart of local needs – are beneficiaries of this targeted funding to move the needle on HIV/AIDS in the South.
AIDS United is leading the fund, a pool of resources from organizations like Gilead Sciences, Johnson & Johnson, Ford Foundation, Elton John AIDS Foundation, and ViiV Healthcare. Each has been leading funders to support the United States’ HIV response, but this collaboration is a first-of-it’s kind “to stop the persistent and worsening impact of the epidemic on the region. The Fund is making an initial investment of $2.65 million in support of 37 organizations in nine states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. It has already mobilized an additional $150,000 in emergency support for people living with HIV in hurricane-impacted areas of the region, including Texas and Florida.”
On days like World AIDS Day, marked on December 1 of each year, we pause to reflect on the achievements, the heartbreak and the work yet to be done. Meanwhile, the heart and commitment of Monica Johnson and her team of dedicated HEROES goes on day by day.
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Find HEROES on Facebook and Instagram to learn more about their work. You can follow the progress of the Southern Impact HIV Fund with AIDS United. We salute the organizations supporting this incredible work.
Images via Heroesla.org