An award for a family deep into the fight

(From left) Keisha Diggs, her mother Terrie Hawkins and her brother Kevin Diggs spend significant time working at the AIDS Fund, where they aim to spread awareness of HIV and AIDS and lessen stigma surrounding the disease. | Erin edinger-turoff TTN
(From left) Keisha Diggs, her mother Terrie Hawkins and her brother Kevin Diggs spend significant time working at the AIDS Fund, where they aim to spread awareness of HIV and AIDS and lessen stigma surrounding the disease. | Erin edinger-turoff TTN

When 17-year-old twins Kevin and Keisha Diggs were recognized for their work at AIDS Fund with the Ferrara Family Volunteering Award this spring, they ran the coat check in between posing for photographers. 

Their mother, senior social work major and the outreach coordinator for AIDS Fund, Terrie Hawkins, said the twins didn’t expect people to “make a fuss” over their contribution. Due to Hawkins’ own involvement at the organization, Kevin and Keisha have been donating their time to the AIDS Fund since they were 3 years old. The organization is a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that aims to promote awareness of HIV and AIDS.

“I always thought it was just a natural thing of life,” Kevin Diggs said. “We never really talked about it or anything. Like we’ve talked about it, but it wasn’t anything beyond what she’d say to us at AIDS Fund. For us, it’s just being a normal family.”

When he and his sister found out about their award in March, they didn’t consider their volunteering to be exceptional. For as long as they can remember, they’ve helped with the setup and cleanup of AIDS Fund events, including various bingo nights. They also help with mailing efforts and preparation for AIDS Walk, the most important yearly event for AIDS Fund.

“They’re like a fixture, because they greet the guests when they come in for bingo, and at concessions they serve the guests, and then they break down [after an event],” Hawkins said. “It’s like an eight-hour workday. Sometimes it can get tedious, but they know at the end of the day that it was so much worth it.”

Both high school students said they plan to continue their efforts at AIDS Fund once they begin college. Both said they will likely follow in Hawkins’ footsteps, starting at the Community College of Philadelphia before transferring to Temple to finish their undergraduate degrees. Keisha said she is primarily interested in art, which she already pursues at Charter High School of Architecture and Design, while Kevin has participated in the Mock Trial events at Constitutional High School.

As someone living with HIV, Hawkins said she’s immensely proud of the twins’ effort, but she also wants AIDS and HIV to become less stigmatized – to lose the “shock factor” that is still associated with the disease.

“I just want [people] to be more open, instead of thinking of it as this is a chronic disease,” Hawkins said. “I just wish that stigma of HIV wasn’t so apparent now, because a chronic disease can be hypertension, it can be diabetes. It’s just still such a hard conversation to have with someone.”

In her experiences within the social work department at Temple, Hawkins said she participated in an internship for which she went door-to-door in West Philadelphia, offering free HIV and hepatitis C testing. She said most people still assume they aren’t at risk due to misconceptions about who contracts HIV. Keisha Diggs said this tendency is one of the first things she and her brother became aware of because of the AIDS Fund.

“Some people still think that you only get HIV from having sex with the same sex,” Keisha Diggs said. “It’s not true. If people understand that not only the same-sex couples can get it, but also heterosexuals, then people would probably stop freaking out.”

Kevin Diggs added that many people are “pretty immature” about the disease. Their volunteering experience is something Hawkins said she hopes will become the norm, resulting in less negative attitude about HIV/AIDS.

“I think, for example, we have families involved in the schools, and we have the PTAs, and that’s part of the norm,” Hawkins said. “If you do fundraisers, you have the families associated with the schools, and everybody works together. That’s the mentality I want [society] to have when it comes to HIV and AIDS.”

When Hawkins found out about her own diagnosis, she said her own understanding of HIV was slim to none. As far as she knew, she said, “HIV could be anything.”

She said she recalled feeling alienated from her family due to their misunderstanding of the disease. She said the first thing she decided to do was educate herself, and then make sure her children were educated.

“When I found out my status and I was able to conquer it and overcome it, I knew that was going to be the main focus for them,” Hawkins said. “I don’t want them to be surprised or unaware about what HIV is, how it affects people and how people can be exposed to it. The only way I felt I could fight HIV stigma was to start at home.”

Hawkins said she thinks Temple has taken steps toward the proactive attitude she’s tried to instill in her children. She’s coordinated with the Wellness Resource Center to bring AIDS Fund representation to Main Campus, including the presentation of an AIDS memorial quilt and timeline at various events. One thing she’d like to see introduced, Hawkins said, would be to distribute free condoms in more places around Main Campus.

Her children make her proud every day, Hawkins said.

“When it comes down to it, when I ask them to help me out, they don’t give me a hard time,” Hawkins said. “Of course I overwork them, but besides that I can’t believe how they’re just willing to step in and help me out, and not only help me out but to be willing to accept what I’m going through.”

Erin Edinger-Turoff can be reached at erin.edingerturoff@temple.edu or on Twitter @erinJustineET. 

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