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Spotlight: Paige Rawl

Living a positive life with HIV

Paige Rawl liked middle school. She was an athlete. She sang in the choir. She had lots of friends. But at age 12, her life changed when she learned she was born with HIV.

Paige shared her status with one of her friends. In no time, it seemed that the whole school knew. Her classmates bullied her and her teachers didn't protect her. Paige's soccer coach even made a "joke" about her HIV status. But Paige didn't let any of this defeat her. She decided to speak out to end the stigma, or shame, around HIV/AIDS.

Paige doesn't want anyone else to experience what she did. That's why she's joining the Office on Women's Health as an ambassador for National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. Read Paige's story about living with HIV and why she doesn't let her status define her.

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How old are you?

I'm 20 years old.

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How did it feel when you learned you were HIV-positive?

When I found out that I was HIV-positive, I was just 12 years old and didn't fully understand. My mom had explained to me that as long as I took my medication and went to the doctor, I would be OK. My mom never made me feel like I was any different from any other kid. I grew up living a normal life, just like any other kid my age, even with my HIV status. I didn't even know that there was a stigma around the disease until I was bullied because of my HIV status in middle school.

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Can you share a little bit about your experience being bullied?

When I was in sixth grade, I told my best friend that I was born HIV-positive. Within just a couple of hours of telling her, I went to share a drink with a friend, and a boy said, "Don't drink after her, you'll contract AIDS." At that moment I knew she had told someone. Within a couple of weeks, my entire middle school knew my HIV status. Someone left a note on my locker saying to keep AIDS out of my school. I was given the nickname PAIDS. And things were written about me on the bathroom stalls.

I went to the school counselor to complain many times, but the students only got verbal warnings and were sent back to class. My school counselor's advice to me was that I could deny I was HIV-positive.

The bullying got so bad that I was having stress-induced seizures for about nine months during seventh grade. My eighth grade year began and I thought if I could make it just one more year, then I would be OK. But then I tried out for the soccer team, made it, and at the first away game my soccer coach approached me and said, "By the way, I heard that you have AIDS. Is that true?" I told her, "No. I am HIV-positive, and there is a difference." My mom confronted the soccer coach a couple of days later, and the coach went on to make a joke about it. She said that we could use my HIV status to our advantage. The players on the other team would be afraid to touch me, so I could score goals. I decided that was the last straw. I met with the school administration, my mom, and my doctor. My principal told me that she wished I could stay at school, but she couldn't promise to protect me. I felt like they didn't even try. So on September 23, 2008, I withdrew from the school and was homeschooled for the rest of my eighth grade year.

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What's your advice for dealing with people who bully?

My advice to people who are dealing with bullies is to stand up to them. If you are being bullied or if you see someone else being bullied, tell someone. Don't just be a bystander. It's most important what you think about yourself, not what other people think about you. Most of the time someone who bullies is bullying because of something they are going through, or they're dealing with insecurities. So they try to bring the people around them down with them.

Try not to take it personally. Most of the time it has nothing to do with you. It's also important to stay strong. Try acting as if the bullying doesn't affect you and doesn't change how you feel about yourself. Then the people who bully will no longer be satisfied. Usually, they won't want to bully someone who isn't affected by it.

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Tell us why you wanted to be an ambassador for National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.

I feel I can be a great inspiration for others when it comes to being educated about this disease. Statistics show that of people who are newly infected with HIV, one in four are between the ages of 13 and 24. Because I am 20 years old, I feel that I can reach young people. I feel that they are more likely to relate to me and listen to what I am saying. They will want to learn more about this disease. My goal is to bring awareness and to educate people about the disease. I want to inspire people to want to know their status. I want to help others understand that HIV is no longer a death sentence but that it can still happen to anyone. Because there is no cure at the moment, I feel the only kind of cure we have is education. The more I go out and speak to my peers, the more I see the need there is for me to be out there sharing my story and educating people about HIV/AIDS.

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Will you share some of the other ways you're educating others about HIV/AIDS?

I go to middle schools, high schools, and colleges to educate students about HIV/AIDS. I give a basic HIV 101. I explain how you can contract the disease, what the disease is, what it does to your body and immune system, and how many people have it. I also share my own personal story to show people that HIV does not have one face and that I am not defined by my HIV status.

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What can other girls do to help end the stigma around HIV/AIDS?

To help end the stigma around HIV/AIDS, other girls can raise awareness of the disease. Letting people know that it is still an issue our society is facing today. Also, finding out sooner rather than later about your HIV status is best. Going out and educating people about the disease is the best way to help end the stigma. There are still so many HIV/AIDS misconceptions, myths, and stereotypes. A little education can go a long way.

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What advice do you have for others who are living with HIV, especially teens?

Being HIV-positive is nothing to be ashamed of. The disease does not define you as a person. Being HIV-positive is no different than living with any other disease or chronic illness. The most important thing is to create awareness about HIV/AIDS. Educating people about the disease helps reduce the stigma. Also, talking or meeting other people who are HIV-positive can really help. The moment I got involved with Camp Kindle, a camp for kids and teens infected or affected by HIV/AIDS, I knew that I was not alone. I was able to talk and connect with others who knew exactly what I was going through.

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Have questions about HIV/AIDS? Want to help fight the stigma? Visit the National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day website. For ways to deal with bullying, go to our Bullying section.

Content last reviewed March 04, 2015
Page last updated March 04, 2015

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women's Health.