March 19, 2012
This past week I had the opportunity to present and attend the Positive Living 15 Conference in Fort Walton Beach Florida. I arrived on Thursday night and found myself very excited. I was like a 6 year old on Christmas eve. You see when I attended this conference last year it unexpectedly changed my life. So this year I wasn't nervous. I knew I was about to have an amazing experience. Plus I knew more people attending the conference this year then I did the year before. So I didn't have to stay in my hotel room and be anti-social. I spoke there last year but this year it was going to be different. Since my friend Dab Garner wasn't able to make it this year. I promised to spread his 30+ year message and take plenty of pictures with my Dab the AIDS Bear. I and many other Ambassadors of Hope were there representing for Dab the AIDS Bear Project.
This year I had the pleasure of having my POZ I AM Radio co-host Jeromy Dunn join me on stage. Can you believe that Jeromy and I have been hosting the show together for almost 4 years and never met face to face before this conference. So after registration and getting settled in my room I was off to meet my co-host for the first time. I went down to the lobby bar and had beer while I was waiting to meet Mr. Dunn. Then Jeromy entered the lobby. I excused myself from the conversation I was having and ran up behind him and gave him a hug. When he turned around it was like seeing an old friend from high school. It felt like I knew my whole life. After 4 years of talking on the phone almost every Sunday meeting Jeromy alone made the trip to the sunshine state worth it.
Friday's Brunch was at 10am. Then it was time for Activate U Advocacy Academy presented by Jesse Fry, Butch McKay and Rick Vitale. This is one of my favorites parts about the conference. The half-day event presented us with the latest information and techniques for effective advocacy to help shape the future of HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention. They taught us about the history and continued importance of HIV/AIDS Advocacy. They covered how to build meaningful relationships with your representatives. They also gave updates on important issues like the AIDS Drug Assistant Programs.(ADAP) Medicaid and Housing. This will kick start the advocacy in anyone. After Activate U we had the opportunity hear Kali Lindsey on NMAC covered the Epidemic from start to finish.I thought Kali was a great speaker. He made me make a promise to myself to never be silent in a room full of activist.
Next was a bunch of breakout sessions. With so many amazing presentation it can difficult to decide what to go to. One of my favorite activist, Joey Wynn of the ADAP Advocacy Association presented on the ADAP Crisis. At the same time Robert Suttle was presenting "HIV is Not a Crime" a documentary on HIV Criminalization. This issue is a hot topic right now in our community. SoI knew it was going to be well attended. I was right I walked in and the room was packed. I wanted to be there and support Robert during his first time presenting. Monique Moree and Robert, who both appear in HIV is Not a Crime, are scheduled to share their story on an upcoming episode of POZ I AM radio. Meeting the both of them in person after knowing them online for awhile now was refreshing. They both could of chose to hide and not talk about their situations but they chose to stand up and be a voice for all of us living with HIV. I respectfully applaud them both for the work they do.
After the Heart Circle we all piled back into the hotel for dinner. While everyone was socializing and eating we enjoyed some musical entertainment. The a capella group Harmonic Distractions sang some songs and even performed a few numbers using iPads as instruments. It was pretty cool. During their act I noticed they had 2 huge blow up microphones. When I saw them I knew I wanted to take a photo of Jeromy and I with one of them. During the dinner they also presented the Martin Delaney -- Power of One -- annual award to Mississippi Activist Robin Webb for his tireless efforts in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Congrats Robin it is well deserved. Also during the dinner they announced that Tom Liberti is retiring this March, after 38 years of service to the Department of Health, and is Chief of the Bureau of HIV/AIDS. In this celebration they awarded him a fishing pole,hat and cooler to enjoy during his retirement. Thank you Tom for all your hard work you done over the years.
Saturday morning 8am came early. I got up had some breakfast and attended a session on Harm Reduction & Drug Interaction (HIV Drugs & Street Drugs) that was given by George Burges. I purposely went to this breakout because as an addict ,even with 10 years clean from meth, I need to remind myself how bad it was so I never go back. The breakout hit the spot.
Then it was off to find Jeromy to prepare for our presentation that was at 1pm. We brainstormed for a bit then headed down for lunch. Before we knew it we had to go back upstairs. Of course we went up to every table and shamelessly plugged our presentation that was in 30 minutes. Once we reached the last table we headed to the room to set up. This was the first time Jeromy and I were speaking together so it could of went 2 ways. Really good or really bad. Overall we got some great feedback form those who attended our session. We will of-course reflect and critique but I thought we did pretty good for first timers. What I love about presenting at the Positive Living Conference is getting to meet POZ-I-AMers. People who I chat with everyday and who listen to my radio show every week. Meeting all of them is what makes my heart smile. The 1 on 1 conversations with them are priceless. We even got a POZ-I-AMers group photo which is always fun.
Photo Credit JT Talley.
After our presentation I went down to support my fellow TheBody.com blogger Mark S. King On my way to Mark's presentation I spotted a panel of the AIDS Quilt. I took that as a sign to take a picture. So me and fellow advocate, Kevin Maloney did just that. Mark did a presentation on "Bridging the Viral Divide between Positive & Negative People". Mark used role playing as a way to have the audience interact with one another. I left that breakout with a better understanding of just how divided Positive and Negative people are and how much us living with HIV/AIDS still need to do. I got so wrapped up in Mark's presentation that I totally forgot to run back upstairs and see my friends Jim Geary and Jeff Allen present on Faith Based HIV Prevention Efforts. At conferences like this one it is so hard to experience all the great breakouts it has to offer. It gives me a reason to go back next year.
During Saturday nights dinner we had the pleasure of hearing the hilarious River Huston. River is an HIV+ Comedian, Blogger and Safer Sex Educator. I spoke to her on my radio show before but never met her face to face. I was thrilled about the opportunity. Before she started I introduced myself and had a pic taken with her. Once she got on stage and opened her mouth she had us all captivated. She literally had everyone on the edge of their seats and laughing so hard that we were crying. I don't remember if I ever laughed that hard before in my life. I laughed myself a headache. My T-cells must of multiplied within those 90 minutes. She was just what the doctor ordered.
I then met up with Jeff and Jim after the dinner. I wanted to reconnect with them again since I missed their breakout earlier that day. When I get a chance to speak with activists like these 2 guys I hang on every word they say. These moments and these conversations are priceless. These two guys gave me some incredible feedback on our presentation and my work as an activist. I was on cloud nine after my visit with them. Later that evening they held a Dance Party in one of the conference rooms. People get the chance to dance, relax or just socialize. It was also when I took the time to say good by to every since I was leaving in the morning.
Jeromy and I had an early flight on Sunday. We met Wendy in the lobby at 9am and then off to the airport. Jeromy and I were on the same flight to Atlanta. Once there we had lunch, took one last photo and then parted our separate ways. Only to pick up the phone in 4 hours to host a POZ I AM radio show that night. We did a full show of Reflecting on the PL15 Conference. We had people call in and share their experience at PL15 conference. We even had one group call in who were still traveling home from the conference. They stopped in a McDonalds in Mississippi and opened their laptop to listen to the show live. I was so touched by them doing that.
I honestly met and reconnected with so many incredible people. The diversity of this conference is another bonus if you ask me. The conference was attended by at least 400 people living with HIV/AIDS. There were attendees from 22 states and from all walks of life. Gay -- Straight -- Transgender We were all were represented at PL15. That's because HIV/AIDS is a HUMAN issue. I met this one guy named Will who has been living with the virus for 33 years. That is longer then I have been on this earth. The next day I turn around and met someone who was diagnosed 3 weeks ago. I was shocked. The amount courage it took for him to go to a conference after 3 weeks of knowing his HIV status is tremendous. I couldn't think of a better place for him to be. I also met a hilarious group 5 individuals from Alabama who traveled to the conference together and were all first time attendees. Meeting these people and making life long connections with them is what Positive Living is all about.
The Positive Living conference is something that has changed the lives of those that have attended. If you are able to attend this conference in the future I highly recommend it. It is like no other I have attended. I wanted to send a special thank you to Butch Mckay, Rachel and the entire staff of OASIS (Okaloosa AIDS Support & Informational Services) for all the hard work in putting this fabulous conference together. This fantastic conference is in need of some major funding in order to return next year for a PL16. Jeromy and I took a pledge to help raise funds for Positive Living 16. If you or someone you know would like to make a donation toward helping PL16 happen next year . Please contact Butch McKay and tell him Robert & Jeromy sent ya.