MIAMI (CBSMiami) — Maria Mejia is an inspirational force on social media. With thousands of followers on Twitter and friends on Facebook, she shares her story with anyone willing to listen.
In a recent “Facebook LIVE” broadcast, she reiterated her mission.
“We have to continue showing our faces for those who can’t,” Mejia said in the video. “No shame, no stigma. Much dignity.”
But Mejia’s fierce, fearless attitude wasn’t always on display. For years, she lived with a secret.
“The year was 1991 and it was a week after my 18th birthday. My birthday was April 11th and I found out April 18th,” Mejia said. “I was by myself. I remember the doctor had no empathy, no compassion. He sat me down and said ‘You have AIDS’.”
Maria says she unknowingly became infected with HIV a few years prior, when she was just 15 years old. A victim of childhood sexual, physical and emotional abuse, she ran away from home and then foster care, into life with a gang, and a boyfriend who didn’t know he had the virus.
“My mom sat me down and said you must not tell anyone from family or friends that you have HIV, or they will discriminate against you. Back then there was the stigma. The stigma continues to this day. I’m out of the HIV closet. But back then it was horrific,” she said.
So Mejia moved to Colombia to care for her grandparents, never telling anyone else about her diagnosis.
She didn’t seek medical treatment for a decade, and when she finally did, it was almost too late.
“I remember the doctor telling me, ‘Maria, I can take you to the well, but I cannot make you drink the water. If you don’t take this medication you’re going to die’. And I said, ‘I want to live’.”
Maria started taking her medication, eating right and exercising. A death in her extended family made her realize she, too, deserved compassion and support.
“Now I love myself more. I have self-esteem. I know I am worthy. I am not what my father said I was going to be. I’m a fighter,” she said. She wants other fighters to know they’re not alone.
Maria is a global ambassador for “The Well Project”- a non-profit whose mission is to change the course of the HIV/AIDS pandemic through its unique focus on women and girls.
“We’re all in this together. It’s the largest online support group in the world, from all continents. We are 40,000 active members and growing,” Mejia told CBS4’s Lauren Pastrana.
She spends most of her time on the road at speaking engagements sharing what once was her well-kept secret. But she’s not hiding anymore. In fact, the letters “HIV” are actually in the middle of her social media handles.
“I have given hope to many that were hopeless and thought that their life was over,” she said.
Maria says an HIV/AIDS diagnosis isn’t a death sentence, but rather it’s a life sentence. And she plans to live that life to the fullest.
“What makes me a survivor is that I shouldn’t be here,” she said. “I should have died a long time ago. But I decided to fight. I decided to fight for my life. And now I’m fighting for the lives of others. Because there is hope.”
Maria’s mission is especially important here in South Florida.
The latest figures from the State Health Department show Miami-Dade and Broward counties were number one and number two respectively in the U.S. in new HIV infections.
For more educational resources and information, CLICK HERE to visit “The Well Project”.