ST. CHARLES COUNTY — Brryan Jackson pulled into the school parking lot in the family minivan. "Hope Is Vital" was scrawled across a side window in white marker, the kind typically used for sayings such as "Go Team!"
"Hope Is Vital" is the message of a nonprofit group of the same name — a group he filed the paperwork to establish on his 18th birthday, in February.
Wearing skinny jeans and a black knit skater cap, Jackson was getting ready for a senior bonfire that night. But he was anxious to talk about his plans for "Hope Is Vital."
Jackson wants to speak to schools, churches and community groups to educate people about HIV and AIDS, to reduce the stigma and to stop the spread of the virus.
Eighteen years ago, Jackson's father injected him with HIV, hoping the boy would die. On Saturday, the boy who wasn't expected to survive AIDS will graduate from Francis Howell North High School.
After enduring years of whispers, taunts and slights, all while fearing he might die, Jackson is setting out to tell his story.
Adding an extra 'r'
"Not very many people have ever been so close to death before. They've never been so down in life. It took a lot of hope and faith in God to get this far," Jackson said. "But I feel my life is blessed."
He's gone from a child who struggled to cope with his situation — he even changed his name, adding the extra "r," to distance himself from his father's memory — to a young man eager to fight the stigma of those living with HIV-AIDS.
"I want to teach others about the new meaning of HIV and how I've given my life a positive outlook," he said.
Jackson's story drew worldwide attention in 1992. On Feb. 2 of that year, Brian Stewart, a laboratory aide, smuggled tainted blood into his son's hospital room, where the 11-month-old infant was recuperating from a respiratory illness. Stewart wanted to be free of child support.
A jury later convicted Stewart of first-degree assault, and he is serving a life sentence in prison. Stewart, now 43, will have his first parole hearing in April 2011.
Seeing the fear for the first time
It was during the trial when Jackson, then a little boy, began to see that people were afraid of him. Because of the stigma attached to the disease, he said, people didn't want to be friends with him or his family.
When he developed full-blown AIDS at age 5 and was not expected to survive. He took 23 oral medications each day, as well as two different kinds of shots and three intravenous antibiotics. He also used a stomach tube. One of the medications deadened the nerve endings in his ears, damaging his hearing.
In middle school, some kids thought that only people who were gay had AIDS. That's what they focused their hallway taunts on.
"They would run away from me like I had a gun," Jackson recalled.
When people learned of his disease, Jackson faced roadblocks to normal activities, such as joining the Boy Scouts and the wrestling team. He suffered from depression.
"I guess I can display an easy picture of how I got through it," he said. "But it was much harder than people think. It was really depressing, sad, downgrading."
Learning to cope
Jackson credits his mother and family, and their faith in God, for helping him cope. Jackson eventually started to find his confidence, and his natural outgoing personality started to come out.
It helped that more people were getting educated about HIV-AIDS. It also helped that he was getting healthier and stronger. By high school, the kids became a little more accepting.
Thom Loeffler, a junior at Howell North and a friend of Jackson's, has seen how Jackson learned to handle people who are afraid they will get AIDS if they are around him.
"He takes it really well and just never gives up," Loeffler said. "If I'm having a bad day, I'll talk to Brryan. He's been through so much more than most of us could ever think of. He's inspirational."
In the years after Jackson's diagnosis, AIDS-related deaths have declined as new therapies have become available, enabling the body's immune cells to rebound to normal levels and allowing patients to live longer, healthier lives.
New and improved therapies
Today, Jackson's daily medication consists of five pills twice a day and three others once a day. His anti-retroviral "cocktail" has reduced the amount of HIV in his bloodstream to undetectable levels. Jackson has a normal life expectancy as long as the medication is effective.
This past year, Jackson even made the fall cheerleading squad. He said cheering was one of his best experiences and made him stronger. Jackson was known for his charisma on the squad, his coach said.
Girls at school noticed, too. But although some parents were OK with a friendship between Jackson and their daughter, dating was another story.
"I can get into a bad place about it. But my friends keep me focused and be like, 'Brryan, there's someone out there for you. Be patient,'" he said.
As for his father, Jackson says he has forgiven him but has never had any contact with him.
Turning something heinous into something positive
For years, Jackson's mother, Jennifer Jackson, protected Brryan by never identifying herself or her son by name in news stories. That changed after he began speaking publicly in eighth grade. That year, he traveled to Washington to help lobby for AIDS funding.
"He's taken something that's heinous and horrible and turned it into something positive," Jennifer Jackson said.
Jackson has told his story to health classes in his high school and to thousands of other kids. He talks about abstinence, practicing safe sex and getting tested. He spoke at a benefit concert in March at Harvester Christian Church, where nearly 100 people attended.
One of the organizations he works with is Project Kindle, which provides programs and support for families across the nation who are living with HIV-AIDS. He first became involved with the organization at one of its camps several years ago and has since returned to become a camp assistant. He is also one of 60 kids in the group's speakers bureau.
"We've worked with a lot of kids over the years, and there definitely is no one like Brryan Jackson. He's a celebrity at camp to the other kids," said Eva Payne, executive director. "He's determined to keep sharing his story until the stigma is reduced, and it makes things easier for kids with HIV."
Plans for the summer
This summer, Jackson also plans to speak to church groups with Upward Bound Ministries in a worship experience that focuses on testimonies from those who have survived life-changing events.
Jackson wants to reach out to 13- to 29-year-olds, an age group where the number of HIV infections per year continues to rise. Today, about 1.1 million Americans are living with HIV-AIDS, and more than 56,000 become infected with HIV every year.
"I've never felt like going around, being like, 'Oh, I'm gonna die. Feel sorry for me,'" he said. "I basically like to make the best I can out of life."
Jackson is still deciding what he will do this fall. He's considering attending St. Charles Community College or St. Louis Christian College. He may pursue a degree in ministry.
"Nobody knows when they are going to die. I do what I do and live life to the fullest," he said. "You can't survive without having hope."
His mother can't wait for high school graduation day.
"This is something that wasn't supposed to happen," Jennifer Jackson said. "I've cried about it. I've thanked God for it. Every day is a blessing."