Teenage twins to be honored for fight against AIDS

Mom Terrie Hawkins (center) and twins Keisha Diggs, (left) and Kevin Diggs volunteering at GayBINGO. The 17-year-olds will be honored this weekend as "Volunteers of the Year" by the AIDS Fund for their years of service.
Mom Terrie Hawkins (center) and twins Keisha Diggs, (left) and Kevin Diggs volunteering at GayBINGO. The 17-year-olds will be honored this weekend as "Volunteers of the Year" by the AIDS Fund for their years of service. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 03, 2014

As preschoolers, they sorted condom packets, not knowing what the plastic squares contained. Those early fund-raising walks proved too challenging, so they hitched a ride in a wagon. As they grew older and their fingers gained dexterity, they tied countless red ribbons.

Twins Kevin and Keisha Diggs have become some of the AIDS Fund's most dedicated volunteers. They've stuffed envelopes, emptied trash cans, set up and hosted events, handed out literature, taken the stage to rev up audiences. They've done almost everything they could to raise awareness of HIV infection, work to prevent its spread, and erase misperceptions about people who have AIDS.

They're 17 years old.

"Over the years, they've become a part of us," said Robb Reichard, executive director of AIDS Fund, a nonprofit that provides HIV/AIDS services in the Greater Philadelphia area. "They were toddlers when I first met them and now they're getting ready to go out into the world. They have such bright futures ahead."

Kevin and Keisha will be honored Saturday as the organization's Volunteers of the Year during its annual black-tie GayBingo fund-raising event at the Crystal Tea Room.

The twins said they were shocked when Reichard told them about the award and the ceremony.

"I just come here to help. I didn't come here for an award," said Keisha, a junior at the Charter High School for Architecture and Design. "But it's pretty cool."

Kevin, a junior at Constitution High School, agreed with his sister. They're passionate about their work, he said, perhaps spurred by the ignorance about AIDS he still sees in his peers.

"It's mostly seen as a negative disease, a gay disease, and you're an oddball if you have it," he said. "They use it as a passive insult if it's brought up, making it seem like being gay is a bad thing. I don't see it that way."

Perhaps Kevin and Keisha formed these beliefs because of the work they do and the people they meet. Or perhaps the twins got the message in utero. That was when their mother first learned she was HIV-positive.

Terrie Hawkins was working in an Atlantic City casino when a routine work physical revealed she was pregnant with twins and HIV-positive. She immediately began a drug regimen to keep the virus at bay. At birth, the twins seemed healthy, but it would be 18 months before doctors knew for certain that they were HIV-negative.

That was a great relief, Hawkins recalled, and saved the twins from the censure she'd encountered when she told relatives of her status.

"None of my family, my mother and my sisters, want to be involved," said Hawkins, 47, who lives in Frankford. "They don't understand it."

Her older son from a previous relationship was 10 when he learned of her diagnosis. Hawkins said he was ashamed and embarrassed, so he distanced himself from her, spending more time with his father.

At the time, even Hawkins' husband, the father of the twins, wanted to keep his distance from the diagnosis. He did not check on his own HIV status until 2005, when he came down with shingles. When he did, he found that he, too, was positive.

"He didn't want to know, and he didn't have any symptoms, so he refused to think about it," she said. "He felt that if we didn't talk about it, we could have a healthy, normal family."

Now, her husband joins her and the twins for AIDS Fund events. There's even hope for her older son, now 27: Last year he took part in a fund-raising walk.

His half-siblings, meanwhile, have been fully involved in the charity for 14 years, and Hawkins began working with AIDS Fund not long after her diagnosis. In the early days, she mostly did data entry, and she'd take the twins to work with her.

"I wanted Kevin and Keisha to have the facts so they wouldn't be ashamed of themselves or of me," Hawkins said. "They had to have all the information they needed to explain things to people."

Encouraged by her colleagues, Hawkins returned to school and earned an associate's degree from Community College of Philadelphia. She's now on the brink of earning a bachelor's degree in social work from Temple University. She juggles a job, classes, an internship, and her family.

But ask her what she's the most proud of, and the answer is "Kevin and Keisha."

"They're so intelligent and open and - I'm stuttering, I have so much to say about them," she said, taking a breath. "I always wanted to expose them to different cultures and communities. When they get older, they'll find their own ways, but I just felt these were things they needed to know."

Kevin doesn't often talk about his work with AIDS Fund with his classmates because of the stigma. He notes that the public reacts differently to a person with HIV than to, for example, someone who has cancer.

"No one wants to extend the same type of empathy towards someone with HIV," he said.

Keisha is more open about her involvement. Around Valentine's Day, she handed out condoms to classmates. She doesn't know how much they know about sexually transmitted diseases. She remembers being given a handout listing the big STDs, like gonorrhea, during her own health classes, but "I don't think HIV/AIDS were on there," she said."

"People are just too scared to understand. They think if you touch an HIV person, you're going to get it, too," she said. "You don't get HIV from touching someone. You don't get HIV from kissing someone."

One way she brings that message home? She lets people know her mother is HIV-positive, and then makes a show of hugging and kissing her in public.

"My mom inspires me," she said. "Sometimes people find out they're HIV-positive and they freak out and they don't deal with it until they get sick. My mom found out and she didn't run away. She got on medications right away and then went to learn more so she could start helping people. I think that's pretty cool."

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