Bronx-born Shacazia Brown’s mother, Wanda, was just 39 when she succumbed to the virus. Brown was 23 and had a decision to make. Would she send her brothers and sisters (all born HIV negative, along with Brown) to foster care or become their substitute mother and raise them to keep the family intact? Brown chose the latter then cast her supportive net farther. She established a successful AIDS Walk team, tagged “In Memory of Wanda,” that grew to more than 200 walkers over a 16-year period. But Brown craved more. She wanted to let the mothers and kids affected by HIV/AIDS know they weren’t alone and they had a place to turn to deal with challenges at home. Soon after, The SOMWA (Survivors of Mothers With AIDS) Foundation was born.

Today, SOMWA boasts more than 300 volunteers who provide services to 400 children, such as sponsoring toy drives, holiday parties and Mother’s Day boat rides.

Real Health recently sat down with Brown to find out how she discovered that we can all make a difference, some way, some how.

Shacazia BrownWhat motivated you to start The SOMWA Foundation?

As I got older, I realized I didn’t know anything about HIV/AIDS. I wanted to do a little bit more than just support AIDS awareness only in May for the AIDS Walk. Also, I noticed there were a lot of people who were in my situation and [who] didn’t really have any support. They may have lost their mother to AIDS, or they were HIV positive and living at home. So I said the best way for me to do something was from my heart and personal experience. That’s why the SOMWA Foundation is basically a testimony about me losing my mother and taking care of my brothers.

How were your brothers affected by your mother’s passing?

As they got older, my brothers saw how involved I was [in the HIV/AIDS community,] and that made them support me a little bit more. Now, everyone is 18 or older. Each of us has moments of mourning. Do we tell each other? No. Do we call each other in the middle of the night when we start feeling a way? Yes. Sometimes, at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning my sister will call me and start crying, saying, “I miss Umi.” This is what we called my mom because she was Muslim. This is how they mourn to me. This is why it took a very long time for me to actually do my mourning, because I had to be there for them. One day it just hit me on the train going to work, and I couldn’t stop crying. I cried for two days, and that’s when I knew I had to do more. I constantly look at [people who are public about their HIV-positive status]—people like Hydeia [Broadbent] Rae Lewis-Thornton and Magic Johnson—because their testimonials give me energy.

Who volunteers for SOMWA, and how do you recruit them?

My volunteers range from 5-year-olds all the way to people in their 80s. [They] range from doctors to the unemployed. Everyone is either from the urban community or a corporate environment. They saw the vision. I introduced SOMWA four years ago at the AIDS Walk. Then I invited all of [the walkers] to the toy drive, and they said, “I got it. This is why I’m here. This is what I’m supposed to do.”

You recently expanded SOMWA to help those in Africa affected by HIV/AIDS. What can you tell me about SOMWA Kenya?

We started SOMWA Kenya a year and a half ago. Basically, at SOMWA Kenya we focus on education to help get sponsorship for hundreds of AIDS orphans. [All the children] are not HIV positive, [but] their mothers, fathers or their entire family have been wiped out by AIDS. We focus on educating girls about personal hygiene matters relating to the use of tampons, deodorant, socks and underwear. Every year we plan to go down with a team not only to help the people, but also to raise awareness in the states about the epidemic in Africa.

Do you consider yourself an AIDS activist?

Absolutely! I’m what they call a cool AIDS activist. I get teased. [The community] calls me “Reverend Run.” I’m the hip person. [It’s not like,] “Oh, here comes Shaq, she’s about to give us some condoms. Oh my God!” It’s more like, “Shaq, you’re cool. Do you have a few condoms? Do you have a few dental dams?” I have an open-door policy so people can see me and feel that I’m just like them.

How do you balance working a full-time job and running your own foundation?

Sometimes it does take a toll on you a little bit. But when you’re passionate about doing something, by the grace of God you keep going. I’m at my 9 to 5 [job] in the morning. I leave there around 7 at night, and then I put on my CEO hat and I’m in the SOMWA zone. I’m very fortunate that if I have to do an event and I’m not able to make it to work that day, [my employers] totally understand because they see where my heart is.

What’s in the future for SOMWA?

I want to start building a SOMWA center where we will have all the community events we do. We’ll have a fitness room; we’ll have a mentoring program. I want it to be the kind of place where mothers can send their children to get support and feel like their child is safe there and won’t be vulnerable to being in gangs and going through what a lot of teenagers are going through. Basically, moving forward we are doing a SOMWA fund-raising gala to start the building process. I’m looking at a few high schools and junior high schools that just closed down, and we’re working with a few councilmen who can give us support in return for our support. By 2013, I hope we can have a full center.

AIDS WalkWhat advice would you give to someone who wants to get involved in the HIV/AIDS community?

Well, first you should get in where you fit in. A lot of people want to help, but don’t really know how to do it. My main advice to people is to find out a little bit more about the organization or the foundation they want to be a part of. Research and do your homework. I tell everybody I’d rather someone be a volunteer with me first before they start doing any donations. Also, I hate the word foundation, because SOMWA blossomed through word of mouth. I’d rather people feel the movement before they hit that donate button, so they can actually feel and see where their donations are going. The volunteer roster has been blossoming, because people know where [their] money is going.

What do you think is the biggest hurdle we need to clear to bring HIV/AIDS to an end?

I think we’ve come a long way with medications, and I pray every day that there is a vaccine that will take this deadly disease away. But one of the problems we’ve been experiencing is the stigma. HIV-positive people don’t want to tell anybody their status. Many people still believe HIV only affects gays and drug users. What we have to do is let people know we can fight the stigma. Just like when this disease hit the stage 30 years ago and people were frantic and going crazy, we need to educate folks again. I think for the urban community, it hit home when Magic Johnson announced he was HIV positive, because a lot of folks thought they couldn’t get this disease. A lot of people need to recognize there are a lot of places where you can go and get help. A lot of people just don’t want to know. They don’t want to get tested. They don’t want to know if they are HIV positive, because mentally knowing that you are HIV positive is like, “OK, where do I go from here?” But there are places to go, such as Gay Men’s Health Crisis, that will be able to get you help.

How does the work you do for SOMWA affect your spirit?

The feeling is just indescribable. Every day I wake up and I thank God. Each time I do an event, it helps me to heal. It took me almost 10 years to actually stop mourning my mother’s death, because I had to be there for my other siblings who were much younger than I am. I’m the oldest of eight. It was difficult to try telling very young kids not only that their mother passed away…but what their mother passed away from that made people ashamed to say it. A lot of people keep AIDS-related deaths hidden. I didn’t want my siblings not to know how their mother died. I wanted them to know so they could get involved and understand and protect themselves as well. So, each day I’m still healing. Mother’s Day is the worst for me—that’s why I started the Mother’s Day boat ride for HIV-positive mothers. This helped me heal and also healed them at the same time; it was a way for us to help each other.

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