"My name is Paige Rawls," she told her classmates. "I am HIV positive."
When Paige Rawls was 16-years-old, she stood in front of the entire student body at Herron High School and shared her story. She didn't fear backlash or embarrassment. She wasn't worried about making friends or getting bullied. She had been there, done that and came out on top.
Rawls contracted the disease from her mother, Sandy Rawls at birth. Paige's father, who died of complications from the disease in 2001, infected Sandy. While in middle school, Paige confided in a close friend, sharing her illness. The news quickly spread and she was bullied and tormented on a daily basis.
"She's amazing," Sandy Rawls, 51 said. "To be HIV-positive and unafraid to tell your classmates at school is inspiring. It's not about the disease. It's about how you take what you have and what you do with it. Paige is doing something very positive."
Paige was encouraged to tell her story through the "I Need You To Listen, Hear and Understand Me" tour created by the Indianapolis Urban League that reaches out to help teens learn from one another.
"Everyone knows my status and I haven't had any problems at Herron. The administration has been really supportive and the students don't treat me any different," she said. "I decided to share because I had already been speaking and I wanted everyone to hear my story from me and not from Facebook. I didn't want to go through what I went through in middle school."
While in sixth and seventh grade, Paige was bullied to the point where she began to lose weight and suffer stress-induced seizures her mother said. It got so bad that Sandy decided to homeschool Paige her eighth grade year after the principal told her, "I wish you could go to school here but I can't promise to protect you."
When Paige confided in the school counselor, she told Paige to deny she was HIV-positive.
"Is that something you should tell a child trying to deal with her HIV status?" asked Sandy.
Instead of feeling defeated, Paige, 17, decided to turn a bad situation into a positive one. She wanted to not only share her story but also educate her peers about HIV/AIDS. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, youth aged 13-24, an estimated 4,883 young people, received a diagnosis of HIV infection or AIDS. They represented about 13 percent of the persons given a diagnosis in 2004, which is the latest data available. Additionally, African-Americans were disproportionately affected by HIV infection, accounting for 55 percent of all HIV infections reported among persons aged 13-24.
Paige's optimistic outlook and her courage to share her story with her peers have earned her kudos throughout the country. She was recently named a national HIV Hero in a nationwide contest that looked to identify heroes who helped fight HIV in their communities. Winners were chosen by a panel of judges that included Grammy Award-winning singer Dionne Warwick, actor Wilson Cruz, movie director Dustin Lance Black, humanitarian and wife of comedian Chris Rock, Malaak Compton-Rock, and HIV advocacy leader David Munar.
The American Red Cross also certified Paige as the youngest HIV/AIDS educator when she was 14 and earlier this year, the high school junior was voted onto the Ryan White Planning Council as a council member. In addition to her advocacy work, Paige still finds time to be actively involved in school participating in a number of sports, student government and is a member of the school newspaper.
"Paige always keeps an upbeat and positive attitude, and more importantly she wants to affect change," said Deidra Coleman, who implemented the "I Need You To Listen, Hear and Understand Me" tour. "She didn't have to speak out but she chose to help and make a real difference, and that is exactly what she is doing."