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AIDS in America -- And A Kiss Goodbye (VIDEO)

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Too often we fail to see -- and worse, fail to face -- what's happening right in our own backyard.

As global ambassador for CARE, a leading aid organization fighting global poverty, I traveled to Africa and South America, where the impact of the AIDS epidemic is heartbreaking. Yet the more time I spent overseas, the more I thought about the issue we still face right here at home. Today, Dec. 1st, marks the 22nd year of recognizing World AIDS Day. On this day, I'd like to urge all Americans to consider how HIV/AIDS is impacting our own country, beginning in our capital city.

I've lived in the Washington, D.C. area since the early 1970's. I've driven and walked around many neighborhoods in the District. I know this city. At least I thought I did until a few years ago, when I learned a startling fact: Our capital has an HIV/AIDS rate that's higher than Dakar, the capital city of Senegal in western Africa, and higher than Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti. For more than two decades, Washington, D.C. has suffered a growing AIDS epidemic that's affected every part of the city, especially minority communities. How could I, as an African American woman, not know this? I was embarrassed by my own ignorance and became determined to bring much needed attention to this crisis.

The AIDS crisis doesn't appear on the media's radar screen like it once did. The subject no longer commands the headlines it deserves. But I thought otherwise. For the past two years, I've worked on a film called The Other City, hoping to shed light on this issue.

This is a documentary on AIDS in D.C., and the Washington that assumes a starring role is not the city of monuments and museums, of powerful lobbyists and long-time politicians. It is the Washington of ordinary people and their extraordinary struggles living with a disease that is really more than a disease. AIDS is about poverty. It's about lack of access to health care. It's about homelessness, drugs, sexism, racism, and, it's about homophobia. All of these difficult issues are ones that those affected by HIV/AIDS grapple with every day.

While filming The Other City, I met many people impacted by HIV/AIDS and witnessed firsthand its devastating effects on the community. I also had the privilege of spending time some of the extraordinary individuals who are working tirelessly on the front lines of this battle. They are unwavering in their efforts to lower the number of new HIV infections. And they give hope to the thousands who are dealing with HIV/AIDS without the even the most basic support and resources they deserve and need.

I'll never forget the time we spent at The Women's Collective with a group of HIV-positive African American women, many of whom were unknowingly infected by their partners. One woman told me the only mistake she made was getting married.

Over the course of six months, we filmed inside the needle exchange van operated by Ron Daniels of Family Medical & Counseling Services. A significant percentage of new HIV infections can be traced to a dirty needle. Ron, who's HIV-positive and a former drug addict, makes sure that drug users have clean syringes. It's a controversial strategy, giving clean needles to drug addicts. But research proves it keeps people from getting infected. And, whenever he can, Ron helps users get into a detox program.

And a place called Joseph's House holds a special spot in my heart. For a hospice where AIDS patients go to die, Joseph's House is filled with such life and vitality -- and a humbling sense of our common humanity.

I met a man named Lester Reed there this past summer. Something about him -- very warm, very alert eyes -- grabbed me. He was 45 years old and a Washington, D.C. native. He arrived at Joseph's House, his caretakers told me, in terrible condition: bed-bound and in so much pain that he didn't want to be touched. As the weeks went by, however, he began to relax. He started to eat. He started to talk. Volunteers and nurses created a notebook and wrote on its cover page: "Lester Reed--quotations and memos." One entry read: "You goofy as hell."

Recently, I sat beside Lester and fed him turkey with cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie with butter pecan ice cream. He couldn't eat enough of it, especially the sweet stuff. A few days later, I got an e-mail from Patty Wudel, Executive Director at Joseph's House. One of the nurses told Patty that Lester was asking for kisses.

"Hershey kisses or real kisses?" the nurse asked.

"Good-bye kisses." Lester replied.

I visited Lester soon thereafter. He could barely speak but he blinked when he saw me and relaxed his furrowed brow a few minutes after I sat down. A lot can be communicated without speaking a word and the blink and the unfurrowing of his brow conveyed volumes. He was quiet. He looked peaceful. Forty eight hours later, he passed away. I attended his memorial service last week, two days before Thanksgiving, and it was quite possibly the most joyous memorial service I've ever attended.

There was sadness, of course. We've lost Lester. His brother, his sister, his mother, his new-found friends and family at Joseph's House -- we were all there. We were a community of people who gathered to commemorate a life. It's the kind of life that, too often, gets marginalized in our society. It's the kind of life we don't include in ours. But during that memorial service, we honored and celebrated a life that was very much a part of our own.

Lester didn't need to die. Not in the year 2010, not from AIDS, not here in the capital of the world's most powerful nation.

On World AIDS Day, please take a moment to consider that AIDS is still very much among us here in America.

NOTE: The Other City is an award-winning film produced by Sheila C. Johnson. It will premiere on Showtime on December 1st.

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