This year, millions of people will die from HIV or AIDS. Sadly, millions more carry the disease and don't even know it. But today, on World AIDS Day, people are coming together to talk about AIDS and honor those still living with the disease. Thousands of shoes lined Johnson Square in Savannah, one pair for every man, woman and child in Chatham County diagnosed with HIV-AIDS.
Gwen Sweetenburg was just one of the many faces emerging from the crowd gathered for the memorial. "I'm thinking, that's not me. That's not going to happen to me, so why not? So I [took an AIDS test]," she said. "But the that test came back positive."
Sweetenburg had been a drug addict, and was relieved when she heard the diagnosis. She recalled saying, "Okay, now I'm going to die, and I won't have to live this horrible, hellish life any longer."
But something changed. "I phoned my sister about my diagnosis and she began to share with me about God," she said. "As time went on, I realized that I wasn't dying. I was still living, and living, and living, and living."
Sweetenburg was fortunate. She had strong support from her sister. Henry LaFleur's story was a little different. He has been living with AIDS for more than 15 years. "Even now, my family is scared to death for me to touch a child or go near a child," he said.
His relatives followed him around with a bucket of bleach, sanitizing everything he touched. "Or just called and offered leftovers after a family meal for Christmas or Thanksgiving, rather than be invited to join the family," he said.
LaFleur shares his story because, as he puts it, "to endure it alone is almost unbearable."
Through their stories, people like Sweetenburg and LaFleur hope to teach others compassion.
Here's a list of events being put on by the Chatham-Effingham AIDS Coalition this week:
DECEMBER 3, 2003
CONTACT: APRIL HENDRIX 231-0123
DECEMBER 4, 2003
MR. CLUB ONE PAGEANT
CLUB ONE, 1 JEFFERSON STREET, SAVANNAH
DECEMBER 6, 2003
"PARTY WITH A PURPOSE"
ST. PIUS FAMILY RESOURCE CENTER, 708 EAST ANDERSON STREET
CONTACT: MS. HUDSON 233-6733