Rhaynetta's Cause

Even through her own struggle with the disease, Rhaynetta Cheatham has worked tirelessly to bring AIDS awareness where it's most needed: Miami's black community

While she is in the hospital, Cheatham learns that she is to be one of four women honored by a New York-based AIDS advocacy group called Mothers' Voices, which is starting a new chapter in Miami. She will share an Extraordinary Voices award with a nun, a prominent pediatrician, and the administrator of the AIDS pediatric clinic at Jackson Memorial Hospital.

What usually attracts people to Cheatham first is her speaking -- or just plain communicating -- ability. It's why she has been asked to speak at World AIDS Day ceremonies at Bayfront Park, why she told her story on the Ricki Lake Show in 1993, and why she makes high school kids cry when she talks about being rejected because she has AIDS. But Cheatham's verbal prowess has been diminished in recent days by an unreliable memory and short-circuited mental processes, symptoms of the AIDS-induced infection toxoplasmosis.

Oscar Loynaz recalls a presentation Cheatham made several years ago to a group of student leaders at Miami Northwestern High in Liberty City. "It was one of the most moving experiences I've ever had because of how everyone reacted," says Loynaz, who served as coordinator of outreach programs to adolescents at Health Crisis Network at the time and who had arranged Cheatham's visit. (He now develops HIV-prevention programs at HRS.) "Rhaynetta was very proper-looking, well dressed. She didn't introduce herself as someone who had HIV. At one point, she did an exercise where she wrote out signs that said "church," "family," "boyfriend," and she was asking the kids, 'If you found out you were HIV-positive, what would you do; where would you go?' She was grabbing kids and putting them in front of one or another of the signs, and suddenly she turned around and said, 'Some people don't get accepted by any of these -- because that's what happened to me.' After that the kids gradually started to get it. A lot of them were shocked to find out [she was HIV-positive]. They just really started bonding. It became like this moving religious experience."

Back when she was feeling better, Cheatham did a lot of outreach work: for the AIDS ministry at Mount Tabor, for the Liberty City Health Services Center, and as a volunteer at the Dade Regional Juvenile Detention Center and at county public schools. She went to crack houses and shooting galleries to show addicts ways to protect themselves. She tried to reach the young boys in the projects who make spectacular money selling dope until they're caught or killed. She found the young girls they've impregnated or infected, and the older girls (and boys) who were selling sex to buy drugs.

Her normally sardonic, light demeanor turns flatly serious when she discusses the epidemic among young blacks. "I get kids with STDs and they're not even in their teens. They're going to have a baby and they have to wait on an HIV test and it comes back positive. If their parents found out they'd kill them." She has had parents curse at her for not telling them about positive HIV tests, abortions, or other problems related to their child's sex life, she says. "You're eighteen. Who do you tell? Your boyfriend? 'I'm gonna wear this dress to the prom, and by the way, I'm HIV-positive.' They don't have anywhere to turn. You have your whole life ahead of you. It happens too damn much for me."

More than anger has driven Cheatham to work so hard with the kids, though. She has done it, too, to keep herself from going crazy.

In Miami, which has the fourth-highest number of AIDS cases of any metropolitan area in the nation (only New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco rank higher), the disease affects black men, women, and children at much higher rates than either white Anglos or Hispanics. While the Miami metro area is 21 percent black, black men account for 39 percent of all AIDS cases. The statistics for black women are more sobering: 77 percent of all adult women with AIDS are black. Among children the numbers are absolutely devastating: 97 percent of all children born with AIDS in Dade County are black. And while the incidence is declining among whites and remaining steady among Hispanics, it's still climbing for blacks.

Yet the crisis hasn't received the kind of popular attention that results in the marshaling of great financial and human resources. Despite the disproportionate effect of AIDS on Miami's black community, that population generally doesn't shape public perception of the problem; local activists and leaders of organizations serving people with AIDS are overwhelmingly white Anglos or Hispanics. So the sense of isolation and hopelessness deepens in already marginalized communities like Liberty City, home to one-fourth of all Dade's blacks who live with AIDS. Here, needless to say, in addition to the disease's usual insidious complications, AIDS is made worse by the heaping-on of poverty, crime, and racism. Here the failure of social programs to improve life forces the community to seek help among its own, as it has historically done. That is one reason Mount Tabor's tithe-supported AIDS ministry became so overwhelmed that church members started a separate nonprofit organization, MOVERS Inc., to seek public funding. "We took care of everything -- meals, transportation, rent," George McRae says. "Our church almost went under [serving AIDS patients]."

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