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Op-ed: A Letter-Writing Campaign to the Next Generation

Op-ed: A Letter-Writing Campaign to the Next Generation

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Ignorance about HIV and AIDS became clear to me during, of all things, a fund-raiser for fighting the disease that I stumbled upon in June. While I was hanging out a bar in Dallas, a very young man stopped by to sell raffle tickets and informed me that the money was for "those poor old sad people."

Who? I asked.

"You know ... them," he answered with a wink.

Little did I know he was referring to me and millions of others living with this disease. I now know what a "breaking point" feels like. They say it takes one voice to start a movement, and you know what? They're absolutely right.

"I am HIV-positive," I said politely, "and I am not poor or sad." From then on the evening was a blur (and a bust, since I spent it either in tears or in anger).

When the next morning arrived a nagging voice was telling me to "seize this opportunity." I remember sitting in front of my laptop with tears running down my face and my fingers flying. Within hours, I had letters out to all of my friends, the Dallas Voice, the Resource Center of Dallas, AIDS Arms, and a few other organizations.

"Please know that regardless of how this hurt me personally or how angry I am, this is not about me," I concluded at the end of my account of what had happened. "This is about the increasing number of men between the ages of 18 and 25 who are contracting HIV in our community. According to my doctor, it is spreading like wildfire. Something needs to be done."

What I now know for sure is that we must educate our youth about HIV and AIDS because it was obvious on that night that something has been lost in translation.

I've sent letter after letter to radio stations, TV stations, the mayor, my friends across the country and across the pond, and every celebrity and their representation I could find that might listen to my story. I even started posting videos on YouTube. The Dallas Voice was the first to print my letter, which led to quite an uproar within our community, including some who said they wished I would die of AIDS.

But I kept writing letters.

Then The Advocate took interest, bloggers posted my letter, I appeared on a podcast, and I plastered that letter all over Facebook. There was no way I was going to lay down and just take it. Something had to be done. Someone had to say "enough."

Two months later I was asked to speak at a group of young gay men and women about HIV and AIDS. One of the employees told me that many of the youth describe HIV as "an old person's disease."

For the record, I am a 45-year-old man who still does yoga and jogs (when my knees allow it). HIV hasn't stopped me from volunteering for organizations in Cincinnati, Memphis, Atlanta, and, for the last five years, at the Resource Center in Dallas. I'm also involved with the Hillcrest House and Raising Malawi, which helps children in Africa who have lost their parents to AIDS-related illnesses. But it's comments like that which remind me there is still so much more that needs to be done.

For my part, I've created a Facebook page called "How Would You Know?" to help stomp out the stigma of HIV and AIDS and provide education on where to get tested. It's not going to solve the world's problems on its own, but my intention is to offer a one-stop shop (if you will) full of facts, stories of encouragement, breaking news, and the list of needs that goes on and on.

I've also developed a Youth Community Forum where education will come directly from physicians and vaccine researchers, or others who just want to tell their stories -- like I have. I now understand what it means to be "called." No one chooses their calling: it chooses you. I am just a small-town Kentucky-bred man who is, let's face it, a nobody. But like any of us can, I come with a voice of passion, a desire for hope, and a fire burning inside me to change the world.

If my one little voice can do all this in less than three months, imagine if everyone spoke up and said "Enough." What would be the state of the world in reference to HIV and AIDS? Would there be any stigma at all?

Donnie Pangburn is a regular volunteer for HIV/AIDS causes and works in the human resource/training and development field in the financial services industry. He is currently single, living in Dallas.

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