Living Positively: An Advocate for HIV Awareness
Imagine the desperation of a young mother with nowhere for herself and her three-year-old to live. This is the predicament Latoya Mills found herself in when she came to the Coalition. But, unlike other moms we have seen in this situation, Latoya was also dealing with some distressing news: she had recently been diagnosed HIV positive.
Latoya, a stay at home mom at the time, was devastated. Not only was she dealing with the pain of her husband’s infidelity, but the prospect of facing a disease with no cure was unbearable.
“You get a lot of people that are like, well if you this, that and the other, you wouldn’t have HIV,” she said. “But you don’t know that I was a housewife, and I was at home, and it came home to me.”
It took months for her to come to grips with her diagnosis. At her lowest point, she attempted suicide. Eventually, she said, she got to the point where she was “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
“A lot of people think being diagnosed with HIV, that the HIV itself will kill you. Statistics say that it’s a death sentence. However, the stress of being positive will kill you,” said Latoya. “You stress about it, you think about how you’re positive. Just the thought that you have to live with something for the rest of your life, the stigma there will kill you itself.”
When she arrived at the Coalition with her son, there was one person who made a significant impact on her life: her case manager, Samanthia Denmark. Latoya said that Samanthia told something that sticks with her today.
“She just said to me — it wasn’t a lot of words — she said ‘You’re going to lose your son.’ I just woke up,” Latoya said.
She added that being HIV positive forced her to look at her life differently. Her son, she said, is her reason for waking up each day. “When you have your kids connected with you, it keeps you motivated. It keeps you grounded and focused on what you’re doing and how you’re going to do things,” said Latoya. “I’m just eternally grateful that I have my son,”
Latoya still counts Samanthia as a friend and mentor.
“Samanthia was real with me. She didn’t play any games, she didn’t pull any punches, she was real,” said Latoya. “She told me what I needed to do make it, and whether I wanted to use it or not was up to me.”
It wasn’t easy, and Latoya said she has good days and bad days. She attended support groups to help her process the reality of living with HIV. It took time, she added, but eventually she adjusted to the reality of having to take pills every day to treat the disease.
In true fighter fashion, Latoya has not let her circumstances dictate the life she wants to lead. Since leaving the Coalition, she has dedicated her life to being an advocate for HIV awareness. Her passion, she said, is making sure everyone in the community knows their HIV status and is getting the treatment they need.
“My motto is ‘Going from Dirt to Destiny.’ My plan is to get young people to understand that HIV doesn’t have a ‘look,’ it doesn’t’ have a face, it doesn’t have a name. It’s real and you have to protect yourself,” she said.
Already she has organized two fundraising events to help get her organization up and running using one of her passions: music. As a singer, Latoya is able to draw people in with her music, while voicing her concern for the HIV community. Her last event, titled Heaven in View, represented her desire to look to God for strength as she deals with HIV.
Her third event on May 3 at Community Baptist Church, aptly named A Job Experience, speaks to how she has remained faithful to God in spite her struggles.
Latoya cites her faith as the reason she is able to advocate for HIV awareness.
“I had to really build a relationship with God to be able to stand and do what I’m doing now. I couldn’t even talk about it before,” she said. “So for me to get to the step where I’m going to be speaking everywhere and talking to people about HIV, it’s a big step for me.”
Latoya said she wants to leave a legacy of being a woman who never gave up, kept a positive attitude, and kept God first.
“My focus is on HIV and AIDS awareness, but it’s also on letting people know that regardless of whatever you’re going through, there is an opportunity for you to make it, if you want to make it,” she said. “And you have to start with wanting it. You’re not going to do anything if you don’t want it.”