Erin is a 42-year-old Omaha resident who has been married for nine years and has two daughters. She volunteers at NAP (Nebraska AIDS Project) as a Certified Testing Counselor once a month, helping NAP provide free, confidential or anonymous HIV testing and counseling for Omaha residents. She was awarded NAP’s Shining Star Award in 2018 for her work advocating for HIV testing and prevention, the importance of which she knows firsthand, as she is also HIV-positive, testing positive in 1994.
She was 17 years old, attending Bellevue West High School and had plans to join the Air Force. Instead, she was referred to the Douglas County Health Department, Nebraska Medical Center and NAP. The most important resource she got from NAP was the personal support she got from the staff in helping to educate her family. “A gentleman from NAP visited our home and helped me tell my mom,” she said. “He provided us resources at a time when there was such a stigma and the diagnosis was literally a death sentence. He sat with us on our own couch in our own home. It was the biggest support I needed at the time.”
There was a time from when she was 18 to 20 years old when she regularly used resources from NAP, including support groups and monthly lunches. But even when she didn’t regularly use NAP services, she knew the organization was there for her. “I feel like life has been good to me, but if I didn’t have the support from NAP then, I could have made the wrong choices, which wouldn’t have led to such a happy life,” she said.
It was the idea of giving back that prompted Erin to get involved with the organizations that helped both her and her children over the years since she’d been diagnosed. She became involved with Camp Kindle over the years, which supports kids with HIV or kids whose family members have HIV, serving as Art Director one summer. She also serves on the Nebraska Medical Center Patient Panel, educating third-year residents and pharmacy students. She also has competed as Mrs. Douglas County in the Mrs. Nebraska Pageant on with the platform of #Thinking#TalkingTesting.
“I truly believe that speaking out is giving hope to those who are positive and people who are scared to disclose,” she said. “Disclosing my status gets people thinking. They start asking questions they couldn’t ask before. And testing is so important because you don’t know if you need meds if you don’t know you have the virus.”
Erin thinks that catching the virus right away helped her to stay healthy and not let the virus take over or invade her body. She manages her HIV with medication, which is now only one pill taken once a day. That means the virus is low and there is not enough for her to transmit—both of her kids and her husband are negative. It’s because of this and how effective the treatments are that she feels so strongly about the importance of testing, especially the availability of testing and resources for people across the state. “The testing and the education is so important. And people have to know there is someone in your corner who knows how it is and won’t stigmatize you.”