Stephen learned he was HIV positive when he was in prison, in his 20s.
“There were only two people in the room when this guy told me — me and him. But I looked around to see who he was talking to.
“I didn’t know anything about HIV. I thought it was a ‘gay disease.’ So, I was sure he was talking to someone else.”
Four months later, Stephen was released.
“My way of dealing with my diagnosis was to borrow a bunch of money and get my hands on as many drugs as possible. I thought I’d be dead pretty soon.
“Instead, I lived. And I had people looking for me for the money I owed them. My life was a mess. I was not taking care of myself.”
He eventually returned to his hometown of Alexandria, Louisiana, where he was a homeless drug addict. Stephen was dangerously underweight, suffering from the effects of his addiction and HIV infection.
A social services caseworker reached out to help him. “She told me, ‘You’ve got to get off the streets.’ ”
After treatment at a rehab center, he was put on a bus to Lafayette, with AcadianaCares as his destination.
“I did not want to go to Lafayette. My idea was, as soon as that bus stopped — wherever it stopped — I was getting off. Well, it did not stop until it got to Lafayette, and then, there was someone waiting for me, holding up a big ole sign with my name on it!”
That warm welcome was the beginning of a new life for Stephen. An AcadianaCares client for more than two decades, he says he has many things to be grateful for.
“They gave me back my health. They gave me a place to stay. All my meals are taken care of. They taught me how to save my money. They brought me back to my family.
“They taught me to love myself so that I can love other people. I see miracles here every day.”
“They gave this place the right name because they do care about you here. They care about everyone. It doesn’t matter if you are HIV positive or you come because of an addiction. They really care. And they show it. They care for everyone.”
Of all the gifts he’s received, Stephen says the gift of education — of learning about HIV — has been one of the most powerful.
“At first, I thought being HIV positive was a death sentence. Now, I know it’s a blessing. Without it, I would have stayed on the streets, drugging. I wouldn’t have a life today. Today, my life has a purpose. I can smile today. And the more I know, the more I can help someone else.”