Labor Day may have marked the end of the summer pool season, but for HIV-positive Caleb Glover, age 3, it launched a crusade to swim without stigma.  That day, Glover entered the playground of Wales West, a recreational-vehicle resort in Silver Hill, Alabama,

Housing Works’ Charles King, in the pool with 3-year-old Caleb

promptly at noon. Wearing bright blue sunglasses, and a swimming hat and shirt with a matching floral print, he waved at several local TV crews. Lacking the vocabulary to issue a formal statement, he graciously waddled over to give onlookers high fives. Charles King, the founder of the New York-based AIDS organization Housing Works, picked up Caleb and carried him to the on-site pool—from which the park’s owner, Ken Zadnichek, had banned him during the July 4th weekend. And then King, who is also HIV positive, led Caleb into the water.

Over the July 4th holiday, Caleb, who is African American, and his foster parents, Silvia and Dick Glover, who are white, had traveled to Wales West, billed as a destination for Christian families in a rural southern part of the state. They wanted Caleb to ride on a small train encircling the park that Zadnichek, a train buff, had custom-built for his guests. “Caleb loves trains and had been looking forward to it for so long,” says Silvia, 65. In casual conversation, Silvia told Zadnichek’s wife, Anna, who runs the park with him, that Caleb was HIV positive. The Zadnicheks then told the Glovers they would like a statement from the local health department stating that Caleb did not present a threat to other children swimming in the pool.

Wales West owner, Ken Zadnichek

The Glovers, furious, packed up and left. “It is actually more risky for Caleb to be in the pool than for other children because he has a compromised immune system,” Glover notes.

Since the July 4th incident, the Zadnicheks have become educated about HIV; on Labor Day weekend, Caleb, his parents and more than 50 other HIV advocates from across the country convened at the vacation spot to support Caleb as he returned to swim in the Zadnicheks’ pool. Many of the activists wore sporting white swim trunks emblazoned with the logo for the national Campaign to End AIDS (C2EA), the Housing Works initiative that organized the event, which was intended to raise awareness about HIV—in particular how it is and is not spread (swimming in a pool with an HIV-positive person poses no health risk to other swimmers). Several HIV-positive swimmers, including one young man who performed an exuberant front flip, jumped in alongside Caleb and King, escaping the humid 90-degree Alabama air.

The event was dubbed not a rally or protest but rather a Labor Day weekend “family reunion” for AIDS advocates. Caravans converged from Washington, DC, Dallas, Mississippi, Miami and even San Diego.

Activists traveled from all over the country to show their support.

Other activists took solo journeys on buses, planes or trains. Some who could not make the journey paid to sponsor those who could.  They met up to barbeque, swim and down a few Bud Lights, as well as to demand equal treatment for Caleb as mandated under the Americans With Disabilities Act, which prohibits discriminating against people because they are HIV positive.

“I think Zadnichek knows he made a mistake,” said Larry Bryant, National Field Organizer for Housing Works and C2EA, who attended the event. “It’s not our responsibility to throw rocks at him but to demonstrate the need for change and to educate people.” Anna Zadnichek responded, “We do not discriminate. We have been burned by the media.” On Labor Day, she passed out statements to members of the press saying that the park does comply with the ADA and that they welcome all HIV-positive visitors. Ken added, “This kid is the best thing that ever happened to the Glovers. [The family] is getting all kinds of gifts and [Caleb’s foster mother] is getting her face all over the media.”

Dick Glover, who has advanced non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and has been given 18 months to live, wasn’t feeling strong enough to attend the reunion. However, Penny Duesy, 28, another of the Glovers’ foster kids, did accompany Silvia,

Caleb’s foster mother, Silvia Glover

along with her 3-year-old son, Trey. Duesy, who was paralyzed in a car accident when she was 17, sat by the side of the pool in a wheelchair.  It was she, not Silvia, who informed the media of the July 4th incident. “I was outraged. I had no idea [the media attention] would get this big,” she said, watching Trey splash in the water next to King and Caleb. “Trey swims with Caleb all the time. There’s no risk.” Silvia, her thick red hair swept up in a bun, says, “I’ve never started a fight in my life. I just didn’t think anyone would care but me.” But to her surprise—and the Zadnicheks’ dismay—Good Morning America snapped up the story in July and NPR offered listeners three separate interviews on the topic. Websites and blogs across the country posted commentary, generating tens of thousands of e-mails, some asserting Zadnichek had every right to protect his clientele, others decrying his bigotry. “There was a lot of anger at first,” says Bryant. “But I think this event today demonstrates a lot of growth on both sides.”

The Zadnicheks told the C2EAers they were welcome to come to the park and swim with Caleb. And C2EA, meanwhile, reminded their group that they were there to have fun, follow the rules and raise awareness, not cause trouble.

The family reunion attendees make a splash in the pool.

“When met with anxiety [about HIV], greet with smiles and kindness,” said C2EA’s Christine Campbell as the group, carrying C2EA signs, assembled under an RV awning and held hands in prayer.

Silvia Glover said that Caleb was infected perinatally (at birth) but his HIV status was unknown when they brought the infant home from the hospital. She added that she would have taken him in regardless. “I just fell in love with him the first time I saw him,” she said. “We just want him to be happy.” The Glovers have three biological children, and more than 60 foster children have passed through their home in the last 25 years—some, like Penny, have stayed for years. Caleb is the first they have tried to adopt; their application is still under review.  “Well,” she says of the decision to bring so many needy children into her home, “I can’t spell, and I can’t be a doctor or a nurse. But I can give a child love.” Silvia believes race may have been a factor in the decision to keep Caleb away from the water. “[Anna Zadnichek] didn’t seem to have a problem with Caleb being HIV positive until she walked out to the car and saw that he was black,” she says. Ken Zadnichek, when asked if the July 4th incident had anything to do with race, said, “That’s ludicrous.”

C2EA’S Bryant said, “It’s naive to think race didn’t have something to do with it,” adding, “[This notion of the] family reunion goes back to [the era of defending] civil rights with the idea of nonviolence. We came here because one of the demands of C2EA is to end stigma. People are still killing themselves [because of stigma] especially in the South where there is more isolation. Stigma keeps people from getting tested, and the region has the highest rates of people diagnosed with AIDS.”

Glenn Boyer, diagnosed in 1998, drove down to the pool from Nashville. “Advocacy means standing up for those that can’t stand up for themselves, like Caleb,” he said. “And I’m always excited about barbequing and family reunions.” Tracey Johnson, 19, diagnosed 2005, took a 19-hour Greyhound from Columbus, Ohio. Before the CPR-certified teen could even cross the Alabama line, he had revived a young woman, a random passenger (not an activist) on the bus, who had a seizure. “It was my first time actually performing CPR on a person and I was nervous,” Johnson said. “I had on a necklace that said ‘HIV positive’ so they knew my status,” he says, adding that unlike Caleb, he did not experience stigma.

POZ cover girl Fortunata Kasege

“She just thanked me.” Fredia Webster, 21, from Miami, was infected perinatally, like Caleb. “People are going to be ignorant and we just have to put our best foot forward,” she says. “Yvette Ogletree, diagnosed in 2003, joined the Washington, DC, caravan, which drove through the night to get there. During a 5 a.m. stop at a Waffle House in South Carolina, a man munching on a short stack inquired what the group was doing. “I’m going to raise hell,” replied Ogletree before relaying Caleb’s story. The man responded, “Well, I don’t even know you but I am proud of you.”

Throughout the Labor Day swim-in, the C2EA crowd and the park’s patrons seemed to coexist peacefully. But when King and Caleb hit the water, only other activists were in the pool with them. While not everyone who witnessed the day’s events may have been converted to the C2EA cause, King said as the day wound down, “Now people in Alabama know if they discriminate against HIV-positive people there will be a consequence.” Trey Flowy, a Wales West employee who grew up in Alabama, added, “The owner was trying to protect his rights and his investments. We’re pretty ignorant about [HIV] here. But I’m open to learning if need be.” A Mississippi mother named Alicia, who was spending the weekend on the site with her family, said she supported Caleb’s cause. “I would be horrified if that happened to my kids,” she said, petting the heads of her two children, 6 and 8, who had just scampered over to her. “And I wouldn’t mind if they went swimming [with Caleb]. People just have to be educated, that’s all.”

Photos by LaurelGolio