Wow.. I can't believe it has been a week since I left Chicago and all my fellow advocates at #HealtheVoices17. I have to tell you it was life changing. As most of you know, I took a few years off from activism to focus on myself. Making the return to the airwaves was one I debated about for years. I knew that hosting the show would make me feel like I had a purpose again. With that being said returning to the conference world was a whole other story. When I saw a post on social media about the #HealtheVoices17 I immediately felt compelled to attend this conference. Once I received an email that said was excepted I started to get nervous. Its been over 4 years since I have attended a conference and have been in a room full of other advocates. That is when I started doubting myself and my work. Then the second email came asking me to come to Chicago a day earlier to attend "Purposeful Connections". That is when I knew that I was meant to be there and #HealtheVoices17 was going to make a big impact. After reaching out to other HIV activists I realized I would be reunited with my HIV brothers Aaron Laxton (my Cohost) & Kevin Maloney and would have the pleasure of meeting Josh Robbins, Joshua Middleton, Pozitively Dee, Benjamin Di'Costa, Robert Olver , Khafre Kujichagulia Abif ,Dorian-gray Alexander, Kamaria Laffrey Guy Anthony, Deondre Moore and Daniel Garza most of them for the first time. I began to get excited and I could feel the adrenaline running through my veins. Chicago here I come.
DAY 1 - Wednesday - Welcome to Chicago
I landed in Chicago on Wednesday afternoon. I was immediately greeted by Kevin Maloney of Rise Up To HIV at the airport. We found our driver and then it was off to the hotel. The ride there we reminisced and played on Snapchat. Once at the hotel we checked in and met up with fellow HIV activists for drinks and some food down at the bar. We shared stories and talked about what we expected to get out of the conference. After a few hours we all turned in to get some sleep before the Purposeful Connections Summit.
DAY 2 - Thursday - Purposeful Connections
I woke up early anticipating the Purposeful Connections Summit. I was excited to feel the energy of the other HIV activists. I can't really explain it but, when I 'm in a room with other activists it feels like I am recharging my batteries as if I am plugged into their energy. It's crazy but I feel it in my core. Purposeful Connections was led by Rhonda Waters of Johnson and Johnson Human Performance Institute and Rebecca Genin of Janssen. We sat in a circle making human connections while sharing stories. We laughed and shed tears but most importantly we made purposeful connections. Hearing others share their experiences moved me. It reminded me of why I got involved in the fight and why I created POZ I AM Radio in the first place. I left the summit knowing that I made the right choice coming a day early. It was definitely a great way to kick off #HealtheVoices17.
DAY 3 - Friday- #HealtheVoices17 - Together we Thrive
After getting some sleep I woke refreshed and ready to go. The first session of the day was on Energy Management presented by Rhonda Waters of Johnson and Johnson Human Performance Institute. We were assigned tables. I love when conferences do this it because it allows you to sit and converse with individuals who you most likely have not have before. I was at awesome table 9.
I had the pleasure of sitting with these amazing health advocates
Barby Ingle - Chronic Pain - @powerofpain
Kenzie Libbesmeier - Rheumatoid Arthritis - @accordingtokenz
Phyllisa Deroze - Type 2 Diabetes - www.blackdiabeticinfo.com
Christel Aprigliano - Type 1 Diabetes
Emily Robinson - Mental Health - www.youareinthisworld.com
Marcelo Susevich - Multiple Myeloma - @fundmieloma
Sharing personal stories of struggles and moments of empowerment led to laughter and tears. Listening to the others share so open and honest moved me. It felt like each one of them touched my soul. They definitely made a lasting impression.
Then we moved on to the second session of the day which featured a panel of Health Advocates discussing "Combating Stigma of a Chronic Illness" My cohost Aaron Laxton was on the panel representing HIV advocates. It brought awareness to Stigma faced by many individuals living with a chronic illness.
After the sessions ended for the day we all went back to our rooms to get ready for drinks and appetizers before our first group dinner. After socializing for an hour we all flooded the elevators to go up to the 43rd floor for dinner. It was an adventure for sure piling 105+ attendees onto 6 elevators. After a few minutes we all entered the banquet room and all you could see was the view .. well it was absolutely stunning. During dinner we had the pleasure of hearing from Luke Escombe and Michael Sneed - Worldwide Vice President, Global Corporate Affairs & Chief Communication Officer.
After dinner we headed back downstairs for an open mic night. This was pretty cool. It allowed anyone who was attending the conference to get up on stage and showcase a talent or share a story or do anything. I signed up to read a poem Dear HIV that I wrote. I was lucky enough to have Khafre in the audience who also happened to have a copy of his book in which my poem was featured in. I was a bit nervous but in the end I punched fear in the face and walked on stage with pride. It seems some people really enjoyed it.
Check out these tweets :
Day 4 - Saturday - #HealtheVoices17 continues ...
The first session was a speaker from Facebook.com .he covered a range of topics including the importance of creating a Facebook page. During his presentation he showcased POZ I AM Radio, I was honored to say the least. He spoke on using Facebook LIVE and the power of Facebook itself. I got so pointers on using Facebook plus a nifty pen and some Facebook and Instagram stickers. During Lunch Pozitively Dee and I decided to cohost a FB LIVE event from the conference. check it our here
I then headed to my next session with Josh Robbins who was totally awesome. He showed us some tips and tricks on making professional videos. I really admire him and learned a lot from him. He definitely knows what he is doing. So thrilled that he is a part of POZ I AM Radio. The last session of the day was about the power of YouTube. I have to admit after hears Josh Robbins speak and then YouTube.. I felt compelled to start making videos. Who knows what will happen.
After the sessions were all over we went back to our rooms to get ready for our group dinner at Wildfire. I was excited it was my first chance to leave the hotel and see Chicago. Before we left the hotel we all got together for a group photo. This was an experience. We all stood on the sidewalk wondering how we would fit over 105+ people in a single photo. Then someone said " Look up" and in flies this drone above all of our heads zooming in to take a pic. After the group pic we all piled onto buses and headed to dinner. We were assigned tables and I was blessed again to be sat with Barby Ingle. We first connected in the first session on day one. It was a match made in heaven or two peas in a pod. I have the pictures to prove it. I have so much respect and admiration for her. She is an incredible human being. Also had the pleasure of sitting with Michelle Hammer who had us all laughing our butts off. I think I have a few new wrinkles thanks to her charming witty humor.
The night ended back at the hotel sharing stories, a few drinks and of course some Chicago deep dish pizza thanks to Caroline. It was definitely worth the wait.
Day 4 - Sunday - Time to say goodbye
Sunday I woke up sad to be leaving my new friends and fellow advocates but excited to be going home and seeing my partner and family. We started off with breakfast an followed by a panel discussion about online privacy. We were all told to stick around for lunch because there would be a big announcement. As we were chowing down and saying our goodbyes the announcement was made.
“Online health advocates have immeasurable impact on people living with chronic and lifealtering health conditions, providing patient-to-patient support, education and essential resources,” said Rebecca Tillet, Regional Communication & Public Affairs Lead, The Americas, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc. “Most online health advocates are not affiliated with a taxdeductible charity and have challenges obtaining funding to support their important work. Through our partnership with the Community Foundation of New Jersey, we have created the HealtheVoices™ Impact Fund to further support these patient champions in their efforts to serve others.”
This is exciting news for countless activists like myself who work from a small desk in there spare bedroom. I then noticed it was time for me to go to the airport. I immediately got up and said my goodbyes while taking selfies. Here are my #GoodByeSelfies
before I left the #HealtheVoices17 conference Kevin Maloney of Rise Up To HIV handed me a #NoShameAboutBeingHIV+ T-shirt. I decided to wear the shirt all the way home through the airport and with as much pride as possible. One of my new besties Pozitively Dee did that same thing on the way to #HealtheVoices17. So I took a page out of her book and watched how people would look or point when they thought I wasn't looking. I did have one guy who gave me a thumbs up. That made me feel good. I also had someone ask me "why would I wear that shirt?" I responded with :" Did you read it ?" They walked away assuming they felt stupid for asking.
So my overall experience attending #HealtheVoices17 was a fantastic one. It was just what I needed as an activist to recharge my passion and purpose. I made connections with individuals from all walks of life with a variety of health conditions. I know I made life long friendships with many that I connected with.
I would like to personally send a huge thank you to Janssen for making this conference happen and covering my expenses so I could attend it. It has truly changed my life and my direction as an online health advocate. I am so grateful for the experience and look forward to returning next year.
"Our dreams are not infected"