The United States Conference on AIDS (USCA 2019), presented by NMAC (formerly the National Minority AIDS Council), was a little bit different this year. But unless you were a parent with children at the conference, held this September in Washington D.C., you may have missed it. This year's conference marked the very first year that daycare was provided at the biggest conference in the U.S. for HIV providers and advocates.
Playtime Event Sitters, a nationwide service that provides excellent and comprehensive childcare services for large events, weddings, and conferences, was hired to provide the daycare services. Their work makes more of a statement about the future of the lives of those living with HIV, their advocates, and anyone who felt marginalized for having children, than just the convenience that childcare provides.
For many, the advancements in HIV medication and the promise of undetectable = untransmittable (U=U) means that today many people who are living with HIV who have access to their medications and health care are now living "normal" lives, with normal life expectancies, and are comfortably having sex without fear of passing on the virus; thus, more people living with HIV are having children.
However, for many, fulfilling the promises of U=U and having children means not being able to participate in activism, go to conferences, and do the work necessary to progress the HIV agenda. For many, having children means being barred from the processes of advocacy and activism altogether.
"We have reclaimed our sexual reproductive rights, we are having sex and having babies," says Claire Gasamagera, a staunch advocate for women's concerns who was born with HIV. She is a former board member of the International Community of Women Living with HIV (ICW).
"However, when it comes to HIV activism, we are still fighting to accommodate the needs of all people living with HIV, including those with young children," she says. "AIDS organizations and pharmaceutical companies sing the same song to us: 'When you take treatment, you live longer and healthier lives. You can have sex and children.' But the minute we have babies, we get kicked out from the table. Some women living with HIV with infants have accepted the defeat -- that we are not welcome in forums with our babies -- which is quite ironic, because as women living with HIV with infants, we still need our voices heard."
Gasamagera, who was also a fervent advocate for the conference daycare, continues, "It was a dream that became a reality to have a daycare at the 2019 USCA. We have come far as people living with HIV. Some of us lived in times when we were dying like flies. Today we live longer and healthier lives, because U=U and treatment works. I started to voice my concerns early on with my first baby, and I am glad that with my second baby, we now have a daycare at USCA. We hope other HIV and AIDS conference organizers follow suit and make accommodations for women with young children in general. We shouldn't be shamed, hidden, and punished for doing the very thing that makes us feel healthier -- making babies."
And the benefits of daycare at the conference aren't just limited to women and heterosexuals. Charles Shazor Jr., NMAC program coordinator, who is also a parent and used the daycare at USCA, told TheBody, "Having childcare at this year's USCA was transformative, to say the least. As a black gay man living with HIV, having a safe environment for my child is of the utmost importance, because we are not always welcomed in every space. For USCA 2019 to provide childcare, in that moment, expanded its reach into the HIV community by touching the hearts and gaining the trust of the parents who are raising our next generation of leaders."
Playtime Event Sitters is a fully insured, nationwide events childcare company that can handle corporate as well as nonprofit events, family gatherings, weddings, and parties. Their website states, "You provide the space, we bring the fun! ... [We're] ready to bring the fun to your next event!" Playtime Event Sitters can accommodate one to more than 500 children. They are a mobile, fully functioning childcare provider that offers activities to children like arts and crafts, face painting, board games, henna, puppets, movies, toys, live interactive shows, painting, and more. Their website says it best: "Leave it up to us to transform an ordinary room into a fun, magical wonderland!"
"The biggest event we had was 500 kids," says Playtime Event Sitters owner Khadijah Abdullah, who is an HIV/AIDS activist in her own right. "That was a big event." USCA added the daycare plan roughly a month before the conference began, so word didn't get out as optimally as organizers would have liked, and turnout for the inaugural childcare center was much more modest than 500, but very respectable. Numbers are expected to grow greatly in the coming years.
"We had about 18 families; a couple have siblings, so we had about 20 kids altogether, mostly babies," Abdullah says. "So, when the babies are here, we have to make sure of what time they eat, when they go to sleep, what times to change their diapers, etc. And the parents need to know that, too. So, when the parents are taking the babies home, they know the last time the babies were changed, the last time he or she had lunch, their bottle, and things like that."
At USCA, Playtime Event Sitters kept babies and toddlers apart from their older counterparts.
Playtime Event Sitters will even custom-tailor activities to correspond to the event. "We try to do activities that are based on the conference. See those jars right there?" Abdullah points to some jars on a table off to the side of the room. She delights in talking about the jars. "Those jars have an HIV ribbon inside of them, and when it dries, the kids will pull out the ribbon and place the ribbon on the side of the jar. Then they put a light in it, and it looks like a little candle. It's an electronic battery-operated light, of course, that looks like a little candle, and you can put it wherever inside. And once it dries, it will be clear glitter. Like, right now it looks white, but once it dries, the white will be gone. Once the jars are dry, you'll just see glitter in the shape of ribbon inside."
About her staff, Abdullah continues, "All of my staff is background-checked, and CPR and first-aid certified. Many of them are professional teachers during the week, or professional nannies, professional sitters, or camp counselors, or something to do with children; dance instructors, etc. So they all have a professional background. See the lead in there," Abdullah motions toward the daycare, "she's been doing daycare and health care for decades. She's the lead, and she makes sure things are going smoothly. We have a lead in every room."
"I also do other HIV work," Abdullah concludes. "Our daycare is a safe community. I'm the founder of Faith HIV/AIDS Awareness Day." Abdullah is also the founder of RAHMA (Reaching All HIV+ Muslims in America).
Paul Kawata, celebrating 30 years as executive director of NMAC, the organization that presents the yearly USCA conference, tells TheBody, "For me, having childcare was a dream beyond my imagination. In the early years, it was all about making sure we had a good emergency protocol. Now, we get to dream about childcare, especially because so many of the kids have HIV-positive parents. That makes me a very happy old man!"