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'Grace' under pressure in Fort Lauderdale

SoFla HIV survivors share triumphs, stigmas of disease in "Saving Grace" @OldDillardMuseu & @worldaidsmuseum.

Yolonda Reed admired her mother's service in the Air Force so much she took a physical exam at age 15, eager to enlist the moment she graduated. When the results of her physical came back, Reed's hope sunk, replaced by deep depression, as she recognized the familiar in the diagnosis: HIV positive.

It was a disease she recognized in her uncle on her father's side, who contracted the virus through a blood transfusion at a hospital in northern Florida. Years later, she would watch it ravage her aunt on her mother's side. After years of care-giving at their Fort Lauderdale home, feeding and helping her bathe, Reed's aunt was sent to hospice care, where she died.

"I don't know if I was in denial that death from AIDS was inevitable, but I didn't think I would be the one to die," says Reed, now 42. "My family has supported me from day one. I wasn't shunned. They always supported me, so I wasn't able to wallow in the depression of, 'I'm going to die.' "

A survivor with AIDS for 27 years, Reed, who has two sons (both negative), has been outspoken about her disease and how it was stigmatized in the 1980s as a virus affecting only homosexuals. Her story appears in a new exhibit of photos and videos called "Saving Grace: the AIDS Crisis in the Black Community," on view through Friday, April 29, at the Old Dillard Museum in Fort Lauderdale. It moves to the World AIDS Museum in Wilton Manors on June 4.

The show, created by the World AIDS Museum and the Broward-based newspaper Westside Gazette, includes a 20-minute documentary featuring interviews with local African-American survivors and advocates. Speaking over the phone this week, Reed says her family helped her through the worst moments of treatment, but she stresses that many other "black families don't have that luxury."

The timing of the exhibit falls on the heels of what World AIDS Museum founder Hugh Beswick calls "alarming" statistics: The Florida Department of Health, in 2014, estimated that African-Americans accounted for 47 percent of the 109,969 people living in Florida with an HIV infection. (A Sun-Sentinel story published in July 2015 cited newer statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which registered 3,555 new cases of HIV infection so far that year in Florida.)

Beswick, an AIDS survivor himself, says the show came together after connecting with Bobby Henry, Reed's father and the publisher of Westside Gazette.

"I realized that this wasn't just community interest from Bobby. It was something deeply more personal," Beswick recalls. "Bobby wanted to show the ripple effect of AIDS. What bothered him is that, although he and his daughter have gone public about her AIDS, he didn't talk about how deep it went. And he realized how typical that is of many in the black community."

Interviewed for the documentary are Florida Sen. Christopher Smith, pastors from churches in Pompano Beach and Fort Lauderdale, and employees from the Children's Diagnostic and Treatment Center and Broward House. Also on display are 40 portraits from San Francisco-based photographer Duane Cramer, including images of retired basketball player Magic Johnson, film director Patrik-Ian Polk and other South Florida survivors. The photos are presented in groupings of three, and each third portrait is a small mirror, "so that you can look at yourself and confront your own feelings about HIV-AIDS," Beswick says.

"HIV is not an alone disease," Beswick says. "When stigma is addressed, it can save your life, because stigma is what has colored HIV since the beginning. And I'm hoping the black and gay communities can partner to tell the whole story."

"Saving Grace: The AIDS Crisis in the Black Community" will open with a reception 6:30-9 p.m. Thursday, April 28, and run through Friday, April 29, at Old Dillard Museum, 1009 NW Fourth St., in Fort Lauderdale. The museum is open 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Friday. The show then moves to World AIDS Museum and Education Center, 1201 NE 26th St., Wilton Manors on June 4. Admission is free. Call 954-390-0550.

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