For some, leaving a legacy means establishing a foundation to further issues close to their hearts, scholarships to alma maters, or donations to institutions which honor the donor through the naming of a building or park.
Then there are those who did not know at the time that they would be leaving a legacy that positively impacts the lives of millions.
On Aug. 30, many of my friends and former classmates gathered at Hamilton Heights Middle School as the Ryan White State Historical Marker was unveiled.
I went to high school with Ryan in Indiana and I'm positive he would be shocked and honored at how his legacy is helping others decades after his death.
How did a boy from Indiana make such an impact?
Ryan was born with the hereditary blood condition hemophilia. At the time, hemophilia was treated with frequent blood transfusions. Then in 1984, Ryan was diagnosed with AIDS. The lack of proper screening of blood donors and the medical community's lack of knowledge about the HIV virus were made horribly apparent by his diagnosis, as well as the numerous other hemophiliacs that contracted AIDS from 1979 to 1984.
The diagnosis must have been a nightmare for Ryan and his family, but soon he felt well enough to return to school. But Western Middle School was not prepared to have him back. In fact, the school refused to allow Ryan to return. Despite assurances from the Centers for Disease Control and the Indiana State Health Department that White posed no risk to other students, the Russiaville, Indiana school refused to readmit him.
This kind of ignorant, mob mentality scares me and I am glad that I did not go to that school. I am very proud that I attended the school that looked beyond the fear and welcomed Ryan with open arms.
“We purchased a home in Cicero, Indiana. Our life actually changed the night we moved. The next day, kids stopped by the house to introduce themselves to Ryan…there was kids who stopped by so Ryan would know somebody the first day of school,” said Ryan’s mother Jeanne White Ginder during the historical marker dedication ceremony.
Ryan and his family moved to my hometown in 1987, where he attended school until his death in 1990.
To me, the historical marker in Ryan’s honor is also a legacy of how a small town in the heartland of middle America can overcome bias with a little education, common decency and compassion and not only make a difference in one boy’s life, but also serve as a role model for the nation.
On Aug. 18, 1990, the Ryan White CARE (Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency) Act became law. The Ryan White Program works with cities, states, and local community-based organizations to provide HIV-related services to more than half a million people each year. The program is for those who do not have sufficient health care coverage or financial resources for coping with HIV disease. The program fills gaps in care not covered by other sources.
The Act was signed into law months after Ryan died from AIDS.
When he was alive Ryan, and his whole family, struggled with AIDS discrimination. But he also was able to help change how the world viewed the disease and those who suffer from it.
“He changed my life; he changed millions of other people’s lives,” said rock icon Elton John in a recorded speech played during the historical marker dedication. “He was a hero. He was a child that found himself with HIV and AIDS and he died at an early age, unnecessarily and tragically. But what his legacy has left is astonishing…It is a huge honor for him to be recognized by the State of Indiana. But I can’t think of anyone who personifies dignity, bravery and courage more than Ryan White.”
Now his mother continues to fight discrimination and for funding for proper diagnosis and treatment for all those with HIV/AIDS in Ryan's honor.
For more information about the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program, visit http://hab.hrsa.gov/livinghistory/