“I didn’t set out to be the poster child for this but I want to put a face with it because I feel like a lot of the stigma is still there. People hear HIV/AIDS and they think of someone who is frail and sickly looking and I am far from that,” said Tommy Dennis.
Dennis, 26, was recently named an Unsung Hero by POZ magazine for his volunteer work with Nebraska AIDS Project. He is one of 100 individuals to receive the honor. All of the individuals who won were nominated by members of their community for the work they do to raise awareness and help in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Their special distinction? Each person on the list is also HIV-positive.
Dennis was diagnosed with HIV in 2010. He admits when he was first diagnosed he went through a bout of depression.
“It took me the first year to grasp what was going on. It was the support I received from my family that lifted me up to the level I am at now. They encouraged me. They told me they loved me and that they didn’t think any less of me,” explained Dennis.
He said that got him to thinking that not everyone has that type of support. Dennis is adamant that the disease is nothing to be ashamed of or scared about. But he does say the worst thing you can do if you’re diagnosed is let the disease go untreated.
Having HIV has also changed Dennis’ entire perspective on STD’s in general. He said it made him want to know more about the HIV virus and what might happen to him if it progresses to the next step, becoming AIDS.
Since being diagnosed with HIV, Dennis has switched majors in school from Journalism to Social Work. He said he wants to obtain his Bachelor’s degree and work with Nebraska AIDS Project on a professional level.
Dennis was a client at the Nebraska AIDS Project before he started volunteering his time doing speaking engagements. Between November and February, Dennis volunteers about 15-20 hours a week for the organization. He said there are a lot of events during that time focused on STD awareness as well as World AIDS Day December 1.
In addition to speaking engagements, Dennis also helps form, organize and facilitate the youth group at Nebraska AIDS Project.
“It’s all people close to my age. I don’t really consider myself outside of the group because I’m a group member dealing with it as well. We get together twice a month and talk about issues that pertain to being HIV positive. We’ve had health care professionals come in and talk to us about the importance of taking medications and eating properly to help navigate our health post-diagnosis,” Dennis said.
When Dennis found out he had been named an Unsung Hero he said he was completely speechless, especially since he’s only been doing speaking engagements for three years. He said he felt that was just a small contribution compared to what others are doing. But the fact he was recognized for making a difference lets Dennis know he is doing something right.
“I am completely humbled and honored by it, especially since POZ only chose 100 individuals in the entire country,” he said.
Over the last year, Dennis has been connecting with some amazing people on Facebook and Twitter. After the Unsung Heroes list was released, Dennis realized he had actually already been talking with some of the people on the list via social media.
POZ magazine will send Dennis copies of the publication as well as a special certificate.
Dennis explained why he feels it so important to educate people about HIV/AIDS, “With people my age and younger, I don’t think the education is there. I think back to the way I was brought up, coming from a bi-racial family, HIV/AIDS is not really talked about in African-American homes. It’s almost a taboo subject and I feel the only way it will get talked about is if I share my experience.”
He said many people come up to him and ask him questions after speaking engagements or over social media. Dennis acknowledges that it’s a small thing but it’s a start. He said he likes to think the information he shares will get passed along somewhere down the road.
When Dennis wakes up each and every day he has a mantra he says to himself in the mirror – a play on his status. “I say to myself, ‘Okay, you’re positive, so let’s go out and do something positive.’ People need to know that individuals with HIV/AIDS are still people and we deserve respect.”