Annual vigil commemorates, raises HIV/AIDS awareness

The 4th annual World AIDS Day Candlelight Vigil was held on Nov. 29 at Florida A&M University. The Vigil began at 5:45 p.m. and lasted for an hour at the Eternal Flame.          

The candlelight vigil was the kickoff to the various HIV/AIDS activities that will take place on FAMU’s campus in the next week.

This is the first year that FAMU will have weeklong events dedicated to the deadly virus. Some events that will occur in the next week include a march to the capital that will be held today, a condomology seminar Monday and free HIV/AIDS testing Tuesday.

The vigil, which is held every year, is dedicated to raising awareness of the AIDS pandemic caused by the HIV infection.

A few participants of the vigil include Professor Maria Okeke and her health class, the Leon County Health department, Student Government Association and the Future Public Health Professionals.

Shiela Morris, an HIV/AIDS training consultant for the Leon County Health Department said the vigil had great importance for students on campus.

“The purpose of the vigil is to remember those persons infected as well as affected by HIV/AIDS. The vigil also allows us to take a moment of silence to think about this disease, which has been around for 27 years,” Morris said. “The theme this year is ‘change the conversation’, and it’s to get people to communicate on why it is important to be protected as well as how to be protected.”

Surrounding the eternal flame included numerous informative poster boards about HIV/AIDS, which were created by students in Okeke’s health class.

Music played and tables were set up on the grass filled with testing information, condoms, and American Red Cross brochures explaining the disease.

Bengie Jeudy, 18, a freshman criminal justice student from Fort Lauderdale was one of the students in Okeke’s class who eagerly participated in the vigil.  

“I was happy to partake in the vigil, because it made me more aware of how serious this disease really is,” Jeudy said. “The purpose of the vigil was to help increase awareness about this disease, and it definitely increased mine.”

The vigil began as students and participants crowded around the flame holding unlit candles. A poem was read and a speech from the guest speaker Carstella Harris, who is both an advocate as well as a victim of HIV, immediately followed. Harris openly discussed her experiences with the disease over the past 18 years.

“It’s not an easy thing to come out to people,” Harris said. “I want people to know it could happen to anyone.”

Harris said she wants people to know contracting HIV or AIDS could happen to anyone.

“If I could change one life, it will be worth it,” Harris said. “I was married for four years after I found out.”

The vigil continued as statistics were delivered to the observers and the candles were lit before the community prayer. As the crowd of people stood around holding their candles, Curtisha Randolph delivered a song and Okeke delivered a prayer, which ended the event. 

Shenina Armstrong, president of Featured Public Health Professionals said the overall message of the event showed respect to those who have died from the disease. She said it was better for the event to reach one person than to reach no one.

“We want to learn from their mistakes and make sure history doesn’t repeat itself,” Armstrong said. “We can’t decrease people infected but we can decrease more people getting affected in the future.”