Six-year-old Ameryah’s family would not be able to afford the lip gloss and Hello Kitty-themed gifts she’ll be unwrapping this Christmas Day.
But she and six other Baton Rouge children will receive bundles of donated gifts on their wish lists, ranging from Nike socks to Dora the Explorer toys to Batman figures. The workers who distribute the cheery presents have one hope: That they will cheer up the children and give them a day to forget everyday woes.
The children and their families belong to a large but stigmatized group — the HIV and AIDS-affected in Louisiana’s capital city. Family Services of Greater Baton Rouge and Capital City Alliance lead a holiday toy drive for them each year.
Tucked into the oft-mentioned HIV and AIDS statistics in Louisiana are nearly 200 children living with the virus, usually passed on from their parents. Many fall below the poverty line and their parents scrape to pay monthly bills, which is why the toy drive began.
“It’s one day that you can go to the client and you don’t have to talk about HIV,” said MarQuita Lawrence, who works for Family Services.
The incurable disease spread via certain infected body fluids is especially prevalent in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, which consistently rank in the top five nationally in HIV/AIDS rate per capita.
More than 5,000 people are living with HIV/AIDS in metro Baton Rouge, which includes East Baton Rouge Parish and several other nearby parishes, according to the HIV/AIDS Alliance for Region Two. More than 300 of those people are age 24 or younger.
Lawrence works with children and women of childbearing age who have HIV/AIDS, while her Family Services counterpart Shalonda Bradley works with adults with the disease who are 300 percent below federal poverty guidelines.
The two women said consider their jobs a calling. They help those who come to them pay their bills, find transportation to doctor appointments and meet people who also live with the virus.
For children, meeting people who also have HIV/AIDS reinforces the notion that they are not different or weird, according to Bradley and Lawrence. They host a Red Ribbon group for children with the disease to air out their worries and make friends.
The most difficult aspect of working with the disease is the stigma, they say. Older people still believe HIV/AIDS is a death sentence, and then naive children believe them.
Nicholas Van Sickels, a medical doctor and infectious disease assistant professor at Tulane University’s School of Medicine, has spent his career studying HIV/AIDS. He said the stigma is a hurdle in prevention.
“We have to talk about it more,” Van Sickels said.
He and the Family Services workers have seen many patients fearing for their livelihood and relationships because of the negative connotation that the disease carries.
The nondescript Family Services building attracts HIV/AIDS clients because people will not automatically assume they are going there for treatment, Lawrence and Bradley said. Family Services also offers counseling and parenting help, so people going there have another reason to give for being there.
Van Sickels has more of a problem at a clinic he runs in Alexandria. He said the clinic has nothing about HIV on its outside, but many visitors still prefer to park at a neighboring laundry facility and slip in through the back door.
Many patients travel to his clinic from other cities, afraid their family doctors will find out about their disease.
The stigma is more prevalent in smaller communities like Alexandria, he said. In New Orleans, on the other hand, Van Sickels said, the disease is not perceived as embarrassing and shameful because it’s more openly discussed.
For children, it can be a fine line to walk. Letting their HIV/AIDS status slip could put their future success in jeopardy, but the workers still want the little ones to love themselves and have self-worth.
“We don’t want them to just walk around freely letting people know they have AIDS,” Lawrence said. On the other hand, he said, they don’t want them to be ashamed.
HIV/AIDS research has come far over the past decade, though scientists still have not found a cure. Many children with the disease will live normal life spans as long as they take their medicine, according to Van Sickels.
Instead of downing a three-pill cocktail each day and suffering from rough side effects, research has advanced to where patients only take one pill a day with much milder side effects.
Despite the breakthroughs, it can be hard to convince children of the importance of routinely taking one pill, let alone three. They often hide their pills in shoes or book sacks or pretend to be taking them when they are not, the Family Services workers said.
Taking the daily pill is paramount on multiple levels, according to Van Sickels.
The medication will keep those with the disease healthy, as well as prevent them from spreading it to their partners, he said. The medication also means that expecting mothers should not spread the virus to their children.
HIV/AIDS’ prevalence in the gay community inspired the city’s LGBT organization Capital City Alliance to join the holiday toy drive.
Kayla Mulford, Capital City Alliance president, said she enjoys shopping for the children though confidentiality rules prevent Capital City Alliance volunteers from meeting them.
Mulford and others gathered at Capital City Alliance a few weeks ago, taping cheery wrapping paper over the toys and clothes. She said they ensure that each child has a similar number of presents, and that they also are given necessary clothes, underwear and shoes in their sizes.
Bradley and Lawrence enjoy playing Santa and distributing the wrapped presents to the children’s’ parents. It’s up to the parents if the children can open them right away, or if the gifts will tantalize them until Christmas.
Many people stay in Family Services’ care because they know the toy drive is coming up, Bradley and Lawrence said. They know their children might not receive anything for Christmas otherwise.
“We work with these people year-round. We see them struggle year-round,” Lawrence said. “They’re always appreciative.”