Maria Davis (pictured) was diagnosed with HIV in 1995 and AIDS in 1998. She has since become an outspoken advocate for the disease. She is a peer counselor at Harlem United, a wholistic care center for people with HIV and AIDS.
Despite having neuropathy, a condition caused by her HIV medications that has damaged the nerves in her legs and leaves them feeling numb, Davis, 51, has raised money for Harlem United by completing the New York City Marathon twice.
So when she met an elderly gentlemen during this year's marathon, talk quickly turned to her HIV status.
"It was like HIV 101. I'm used to questions being a peer educator," Davis said.
Davis thought she had made a new friend who she was educating until he questioned how she became infected:
"So you were a hooker, right?" the man asked at Mile 3.
Davis was so shocked that she almost fell out. She's a promoter who was infected via a heterosexual relationship. She only found out her status when she tried to purchase life insurance.
"Oh, so you must have used IV drugs. You were a junkie?" the man said.
Davis said that despite all of the public education about HIV/AIDS, she still sees the bias out there.
"When I tell people I'm living with AIDS, they get a little standoffish....The stigma is still incredible, because people still ask me whether they can get HIV from the toilet seat. I'm like, No. 'You can't get it if I drink behind you?' No. It's bodily fluids. It's not saliva. It's not holding someone's hands," said Davis.
But Davis says she tries to be understanding because she once held misconceptions about the disease:
"When the insurance people said to me you have to take an HIV test, I was like, Absolutely, of course, because back then we thought it was only a gay white man's disease, and we were wrong," Davis said.
And that's what helped inspire her to become a peer educator. Davis said there's a need to make more of a personal connection to those with HIV/AIDS and those most at risk. Too often, she said, educators hand out a condom and a booklet about the disease and call that "outreach."
"You can put a book in front of a person but whatever they are going through with their life, your point of reference is not everyone else's point of reference.... It depends on what a person has going on in their life. Are they homeless? Are they in a domestic violence situation? Are they abusive to themselves? Do they not love themselves?" said Davis.
"You have to know people's stories. That's what I think we have to do more of in this community: Know a person's story. Not just put a condom in their hand or a booklet in their hand and say, 'Here is the information.' Find out why they are not taking that information and what can we do to help them understand how important they are as human beings."
It was a lack of love for herself that led to her contracting HIV from a heterosexual relationship, Davis said.
"I didn't love myself, although I showed myself as a strong African-American sister who had it going on, inside I was in turmoil," she said.
Understanding why she contracted HIV led her to want to help others:
"What really inspired me to be a peer educator was seeing so many people still getting infected. Not dying, but still getting infected in the African-American and Latino community. I said what can I do to put me out there even more. I felt I needed to be right in the community, on the ground with the folks that I see walking up and down the street every day," Davis said.
That desire led her to Harlem United, where she is a peer educator and runs marathaons to raise money for the organization. On the marathon path, Davis said she learned about bravery from some of the other participants.
"I saw a man on crutches and he didn't have a body, only a torso. I saw a gentleman on one foot pushing toward the finish line ... people in a wheelchair. I was like, Do I want to give up? No, because if he can do it, I can do it. I have feet. Yeah they are a little numb, but they are still feet," Davis said.
Davis finished the marathon in 7 hours and 46 minutes. A healthy person can walk the 26-mile route in about 7 hours.
"I'm with the average people," Davis said.
Her run-in with the man who thought the only way she could have possibly have gotten AIDS, was from being a drug-using hooker inspired her even more:
"The one thing I would like to happen is that everybody stop looking at each other from the outside.... We are all human beings. When we decide to start accepting each other as human beings and not looking at each other for whatever we might be going through, this will be a better world," Davis said.
"We have to learn how to suffer with each other, not look at someone and say, 'I feel sorry for you,' or, 'I'm in a better place than you,' but suffer with them like Jesus Christ did. He suffered with people. To me that's when the numbers will go down, because then people will start feeling better about themselves. They will learn love starts from the inside, not the outside."