Turning a personal story into a platform for action

Melanie Paul knows firsthand the challenge of learning about an HIV-positive status when it’s least expected. She knows what it’s like to experience homelessness — to live on the Red Line and friends’ couches. She knows how difficult it is to make sense of a new medical status while wrestling with the stigma of a lifetime of HIV.

And yet, she has an incredible story of recovery and family and love that now helps case workers know that the network — the network that the AIDS Foundation of Chicago administers — really works.

Things haven’t always been easy for her. Decades ago, Melanie was living in Gary, Ind., using drugs and not taking care of her health. “I like to say I went to a party in 1982 and never left,” she said.

But after Melanie was raped in 1997 and a hospital tested her for HIV, her life changed. “I got a call weeks later from the hospital,” recalls Melanie. “They walked me into a windowless room, asked me my name and told me that one of the tests — the test for HIV — came back positive. They gave me a referral and that’s it. No counseling; it was very impersonal. I didn’t even know what HIV meant. So I went and got high.”

Eventually, Melanie sought help from a South Side agency in AFC’s network to treat her substance abuse, homelessness and HIV.

“I started off as a client and ended up as a volunteer,” said Melanie. She later went on to use her story and her voice to make a difference in people’s lives by advocating for people with HIV at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago’s Lobby Days events in Springfield and Washington, D.C.

But it’s not always easy to share difficult stories like this — let alone share an HIV-positive status with the world. “Early on I was very vocal about it. But when my children got older, I didn’t want to be out front, because I didn’t want somebody to see me and connect me to my children,” said Melanie.

When Melanie’s daughter, Briana, was 11, she said, “Mommy, you really need to be out there. You need to share your story. There’s another Melanie who needs your help.”

“Briana’s always been my little inspiration,” said Melanie. So she took her voice and made it loud, serving as a case manager and currently as a Supportive Services Manager for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.

Today, her life is defined by the work she does and the love she gives — not by her HIV status.

Categorized under Inside Story.