Brryan Jackson is no victim. Even though the 19-year-old's early life reads like a Greek tragedy, he's managed to turn a horror story into an inspirational tale.
In 1992, at only 11 months old, Jackson was intentionally infected with HIV-tainted blood by his lab technician father. The father was seeking revenge on Jackson's mother for having the baby, and he figured he wouldn't have to pay child support for a dead child. But Jackson lived'even after developing AIDS at 5. It was around this time that the truth about the crime came to light, and Jackson's father was eventually sentenced to life in prison.
Jackson's not had an easy go of it. His initial daily drug regimen of two dozen pills and injections caused him to lose much of his hearing. And, in turn, his health made him a target of ridicule by his peers'both in and outside of school. But things started to turn around for Jackson at age 12 in 2004, when his mother, Jennifer, enrolled him in Camp Kindle, a no-cost Nebraska summer camp (now with an additional California site) created in 1998 specifically for HIV-positive youths and children otherwise deeply affected by AIDS.
'The experience gave me confidence,' Jackson says today from his home in St. Charles, Mo. 'I became more aware of my surroundings and of how I blessed I am.'
Besides archery and swimming, Camp Kindle includes activities to boost the self-esteem of kids with HIV. Attending the camp over several years left such a positive mark on Jackson that he eventually became a counselor.
'I feel lucky to be part of something that's helping eliminate the stigma that is part of this virus,' he says.
At 15, a newly emboldened Jackson met Robert Reed, who worked for Missouri's AIDS Drug Assistance Program. At Reed's urging, Jackson traveled to Washington, D.C., as part of a group of AIDS activists lobbying senators and congressmen for more ADAP funding.
'What really was surprising is that many congressmen still have stigmas about the virus,' says Jackson, who's returned to Washington several times to lobby for ADAPs. 'Many still think HIV is only a gay disease or a black disease. Then they meet someone like me and see a different viewpoint. Even if they didn't support the ADAP bill, [the lobbying] helps them come to a better understanding of HIV.'
Inspired by his trips to Washington and his role-model status at Camp Kindle, Jackson started his own nonprofit, Hope Is Vital, in 2009. The organization works to empower those with HIV and break the stereotypes associated with the disease. To accomplish that mission, Jackson has become a polished public speaker, hitting high school and college campuses and telling his story to rapt student audiences. Jackson's work was recently honored with a TeenNick Halo Award, which recognizes community service by adolescents, and Hope Is Vital was awarded a check for $10,000.
It's no longer difficult to tell the story of his childhood to strangers, Jackson says. He's 'more focused on spreading the word' about HIV prevention than he is worried about what people will think of him and his family.
Jackson's also worked long and hard to forgive his father. Though he's never spoken to his dad, he's says it's not impossible that they could talk at some point. 'It's a smart thing to do, it's the charitable thing to do'to forgive,' he says. 'Why hold a grudge when it's only hurting you?'
That positive and forward-looking temperament'which Jackson partially credits to his Christian faith'has helped him endure. The sense of purpose'which he's found with his activism'has made him happy.
'It takes as much energy to look at something negatively as it does positively,' says Jackson, who is now studying business and communications at a St. Charles community college. 'Do you want to be part of the solution or the problem? You have to ask yourself, How do you want to expend your energy?'