This story is part one of a three-part profile series titled Rising Above.
Marvene Edwards tested positive for HIV in 1987. The 31-year-old mother of four had been beaten, raped and shot in the head by two men after walking home alone from a nightclub early one Saturday morning in Princeton, Florida, southwest of Miami.
“When I heard the diagnosis I was like, ‘I don’t hear this, this isn’t real,’” Marvene recalled.
She lost her right eye, lost custody of her children and lost her purpose in life. To escape, she turned to alcohol and cocaine and accumulated an arrest record. That was Marvene’s life for about 10 years: “drinkin’ and druggin’.”
But she did not go by the name Marvene then. “Peaches” was her street name, her crack-smoking alter ego; and it was Peaches that called the shots for nearly a decade.
The turning point came in 2003, when she got a call from her doctor, Jill.
“She told me about my count, and that it was under 200. That means that I was — AIDS. It was not just HIV positive,” Marvene said. “And it was basically because of the things that I was doing. I wasn’t taking care of myself. I wasn’t taking my meds. I wasn’t doing any of those things.”
Dr. Jill told her she had “one foot on a banana peel and the other in the grave,” and Marvene said that hit home. It marked the beginning of a new life.
Marvene’s three youngest children were taken by protective services when she was in a comatose state after the rape. Her oldest son went to live with his aunt in Alachua County, and when he graduated from high school, Marvene moved to Gainesville.
She met people in her new community who helped her redirect her life — a life where the drug homes and jail time were replaced with support groups and church services.
Marvene began volunteering at the Alachua County Health Department in 2004.
“I was volunteering because I was lost, and I found myself in this work,” she said. “Before, I had no purpose, but this gave me purpose.”
Her volunteering eventually turned into a paying job.
“It paid, maybe not in dollars, but it paid,” she quipped in an off-the-cuff and yet profound sort of way.
Now, each week she visits homeless shelters like Grace Marketplace and the St. Francis house — where she was once a resident — to talk with the people there and hand out pamphlets and condoms.
She is also the president of Positives Empowering Positives, a local organization designed to encourage those living with HIV/AIDS and to remind them there is more to life than being HIV positive.
“HIV don’t make the person who they are. AIDS don’t make the person who they are,” she said. “It’s something they are living with — it’s not them.”
Marvene remembers the day Peaches died. She wrote her alter ego a goodbye letter, burned it and mixed the ashes in soil.
She bought a withered, half-dead palm tree from a local grocery store. It cost her about a dollar. The store was planning on throwing it away, but Marvene said she wanted it.
It was a reflection of herself.
“That’s me in a sense. I was dead…fading away,” she said.
She mixed seeds with the soil and ashes, transplanted the palm tree and nurtured it back to life. The once-withered plant has since flourished and grown into two healthy palms she admires in her front yard each day.
A reflection of herself, indeed.
Today, Marvene is married, she has relationships with all her children and she has 16 grandchildren and step-grandchildren, their photos filling album upon album in her modest living room.
“It’s more than I could have dreamed for, basically. Someone took the time to believe in me enough, and they put me in a place where I truly have a purpose,” Marvene’s voice wavered, tears in her eyes. “Life without purpose is not worth living, and now I know that I have a purpose.”
For more information about getting tested for HIV in Alachua County, visit the health department website. You can also call the Florida HIV/AIDS hotline at 1-800-FLA-AIDS (352-2437).