“I’m thinking about what a beautiful person she was. She always had a smile on her face,” said Gwen McMillon as she remembered her niece, who died of AIDS complications more than twenty years ago.
McMillon got her annual free testing done at a National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day event in Trenton. She said she does it as a precaution.
“I’m always talking to the teenagers or you know, 13 and up, ‘Be careful, don’t think because you look good on the outside, be very careful ask questions don’t be afraid to ask questions,'” she said.
Today, more than 37,000 people are living with HIV in New Jersey. And while African-Americans are 15 percent of the state’s total population, they represent 50 percent of those currently living with HIV/AIDS in the state.
Rev. Dr. J. Stanley Justice says while those numbers are improving, the fight is not over.
“Even though there has been some progress made, even though there are medicines out there to help and prolong life, we still have to move towards the eradication of HIV/AIDS altogether,” said Justice, who serves as CEO of the New Jersey Human Development Corporation.
Experts say you can go years without knowing you’re positive.
“I’ve seen that firsthand with clients, the damage that gets done can be really, really bad,” said Gordon McConville, HIV coordinator at the Burlington County Health Department. “It’s tough to get that message out there sometimes.”
McMillon said her niece didn’t know she had AIDS until she was very sick. That was back in the early 1990s, before medication to manage it was widely available.
“I said, ‘Don’t be ashamed.’ I said, ‘Nobody will talk about it, and you need to talk about it to save lives,'” she said.
McMillon said she prays every night that lives are saved. As people gather to bring awareness, she thinks of her niece.
“I don’t know one person she didn’t get along with, even the person who gave her AIDS. She said, ‘I forgive him.'”
A young woman, she said, who had a smile on her face even to the end.