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Ursuline Sisters mark 35th World AIDS Day

CANFIELD — Shelley Turner said when she was diagnosed with HIV 27 years ago, she didn’t expect to live to see her grandkids or daughters grow. She noted back then, a diagnosis was a death sentence.

“I remember walking through these doors for (Ursuline Sisters) cafe and it was so emotional because I cried the whole time. The whole time, because I was newly diagnosed, I didn’t know if I was the only woman because I had all these men around me tell me ‘it’s OK, it’s OK, it’s OK’,” Turner said. “But, to see me walking in here, 27 years later, where I did not think I would be surviving and not think I would see my grandkids. I did not think I would see my daughters grow up. But we have come so far in medicine. I’m kicking down doors for my babies.”

Turner was one of many community members who made remarks at the Ursuline Sisters HIV / AIDS Ministry’s commemoration of World AIDS Day Thursday. The annual event, which officially is observed Dec. 1, seeks to increase awareness and combat stigma, as well as support those affected by the disease.

This is the 35th anniversary of the first World AIDS Day in 1988.

“This virus is tricky because it doesn’t have a name. It doesn’t discriminate. You could be the finest, you could be the poorest. You could be the richest, it doesn’t matter,” Turner said. “But knowing that women and people are getting diagnosed now that don’t have to get the diagnosis that I got, like, ‘get your affairs in order’, knowing that this is not a death sentence anymore, this comes so far, so far.”

Turner added that the day meant a lot to her because it was another year of fighting and standing through the discrimination when no one expected people like herself to live this long.

Niles First United Methodist Church’s pastor Shane Russo acknowledged that fighting AIDS spreads beyond medicine, noting the stigmas and beliefs surrounding the disease today.

“I can speak from personal experience in my own settings that many people, especially the ones that look like me and sit in my socioeconomic bracket, think that HIV / AIDS was a ’90s problem, much like that myth that racism was taken care of in the ’80s and ’90s and that nobody saw race anymore,” Russo said. “Many and I might argue most of the people in our faith communities think that HIV and AIDS is in the past. As a result, when confronted with its continued existence, many of them fall back on the stereotypes and stigmatization that run rampant in our faith communities when we deal with ‘the other’.”

Russo also challenged business leaders and policymakers to make greater use of their influence and resources and go beyond simple compliance.

“Today I am preaching to the choir, but the choirs need to get other choirs to sing the song if the music’s going to mean anything,” he said.

According to HIV.gov, 1.2 million people in the United States have HIV. Out of those people, 13% aren’t aware and need to be tested.

Ursuline Sisters HIV/AIDS Ministry member Laura McCulty Stepp said that as of now, they know of about 800 people in the Mahoning Valley who are HIV-positive.

“Somebody who is diagnosed at 20 years old and doesn’t get treatment has a life expectancy of 32 years,” she said. “If they’re in treatment, their life expectancy is 72 years. They’re having long, happy, productive lives, having families, they’re having children, they’re having careers.”

Stepp added that people who are HIV-positive need to be treated like everyone else, and it’s not up to them to make the world safe for them, it’s up to the community.

Portions of the AIDS Memorial quilt originally displayed in Washington, D.C. were displayed for public viewing. The quilts also included ones made to memorialize local residents.

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