When Paige Rawl was in sixth grade, she told her best friend that she was HIV-positive. As tends to happen in middle school, Rawl's confidante told her older sister, and within days, the entire school knew. "I kind of thought I was telling her I had asthma, or something like that," says Rawl, now 19 and a freshman at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. "I didn't understand what the big deal was. So when people started treating me differently because of my status, that's when I realized: I have something people might not always accept me for."
Rawl was born with HIV – she contracted the disease from her mother, Sandy, at birth, though Sandy didn't yet know they had the virus. When she was 2 years old, her parents divorced, and shortly after, Sandy Rawl learned she had HIV. On her third birthday, Paige was diagnosed, too, though Sandy kept the diagnosis from her for years. Rawl's father died of complications from AIDS in 2001; his family never knew how or when he became infected. Her mother is still alive.
Fast forward to Rawl's middle school years in Indianapolis. When her classmates discovered her status, they gave her a new nickname: Paids. They put signs on her locker that said "No AIDS at this school." "My soccer coach joked that we could use it to our advantage – the players on the other team would be afraid to touch me, and I could score a goal," Rawl recalls. The school counselor's only advice was to deny having HIV. Perhaps it's unsurprising, then, that Rawl began suffering stress-induced seizures, landing in the hospital a half dozen times during seventh grade.
[Read: How to Spot and Stop Bullying.]
"It wasn't easy for her," says Elaine Cox, medical director for infection prevention at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health, who treated Rawl for more than 10 years. "She really suffered. People today are much more educated and tolerant, but they're still fearful of a disease for which there's no cure. I ran an HIV clinic for 16 years, and I had patients who let their friends think they had leukemia, rather than being forthcoming about why they were really in the hospital. It's a more overt fear, but it's still there."
Yet Rawl's story isn't one of heartbreak or defeat. It's a success story – one that shines particularly bright during October's National Bullying Awareness Month. Rawl is an example of someone who wasn't broken by bullying – she's someone who's now doing her part to make the path easier for others. She's the American Red Cross' youngest HIV/AIDS certified educator, and she's worked with the Indianapolis Urban League and other programs to encourage young adults to take control of their sexual health and fight back against bullying. Rawl has also successfully lobbied for tougher anti-bullying legislation in Indiana.
"If you're having a hard time, the best way I found to cope was by speaking out," she says. Indeed, during a schoolwide assembly during her sophomore year of high school, Rawl told her classmates about her condition: "My name is Paige Rawl," she said at the time. "I am HIV-positive." And she hasn't stopped speaking since. Rawl now travels the country for speaking engagements, determined to combat the negativity surrounding HIV and AIDS. "I felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders, and it was just a whole new experience," Rawl says of her first speech. "People were telling me that it was inspiring to them."
Both Cox and her sons have seen Rawl in action over the years. "My sons said that sometimes when they had speakers, the kids would talk all the way through," Cox says. "But when Paige came, you could hear a pin drop – because this is their peer, and it has such an influence on them." And that may be exactly what's necessary to change attitudes and begin to chip away at the bullying culture that's become so prevalent. "If you can take away the power of a bully's bite, so they can't scare people, then their power is gone," Cox says. "If people aren't afraid of HIV, or they aren't misinformed about it, then you're taking away that power for it to be a bullying tool. And the way to do that is to educate people. Not me educating people, but people like Paige – the all-American girl who stands up and says, 'I have HIV, but I'm not defined by it.'"