Maria Davis is a force of nature. Though already a successful print and showroom model for nearly fifteen years beginning in the early 1980s, by the early 90s, she translated her love for Black music into a professional calling - becoming one of New York's premiere R&B/hip hop promoters.
With the help of mentors and support from various record labels who provided her with new artists, she created M.A.D. Wednesdays in New York City - the now legendary music showcases that provided venues for signed and unsigned R&B and hip-hop artists and comedians who had no other performance options. Brandy, the late Bernie Mac, Monica, D'Angelo, Deborah Cox – Maria's showcase shined the spotlight on an impressive list of talent early in their careers. She's even featured prominently on Jay-Z's first album "Reasonable Doubt."
But in 1995, her life took a drastic turn. Maria was diagnosed as HIV positive.
She got the news in the mail, having been tested as part of a routine application for a life insurance policy. She had been seeing the same man for sometime, and believed they were to be married. When she got the news, she left and never contacted him again.
Three years later she developed full blown AIDS.
Sick, exhausted and in crisis, she was suffering from severe weight loss caused by an aggressive yeast infection in her mouth. The infection left her with a hole in her tongue the size of a nickel, preventing her from eating. At this point, she was down to ninety-five pounds and near death. Still, Maria kept the news secret.
"When I was diagnosed, many in the music industry looked down on people with HIV/AIDS, or did not understand. We all knew about AIDS, but no one was talking about it. But AIDS does not care about color or social status," she said.
Maria resided in an apartment lacking heat, and used her gas oven to provide warmth for her and her two young children. Getting weaker, her budget was stretched to the breaking point and there was not enough money to buy food for her family, let alone pay for clothing, school and transportation expenses.
To make matters worse, Maria ended up in the hospital for six weeks. Though still weak when she returned home, she began to search in earnest for adequate housing for her family. "I was in a five flight walk-up, disabled and had difficulty walking," Maria said. "My first day home after the hospital I had to lean on the wall to get up the steps."
Maria and her family were in crisis. She was unable to find answers on how to locate an affordable and safe apartment, at risk of eviction, getting weaker and quickly running out of funds to support her family.
Then Maria heard about The Actors Fund. Taking a friend into her confidence, she revealed she was HIV positive. To her surprise, her friend revealed he was as well and told her she could seek help from The Fund through their HIV/AIDS Initiative.
The Actors Fund started by helping Maria purchase a portable heater and assisting with living expenses on a monthly basis, eventually helping her through the process of locating good housing so she could concentrate on getting well.
"I was surprised how involved the social workers from The Fund were," Maria revealed. "Nobody at the many city agencies I contacted could tell me why I was being refused a home, but my social worker at The Fund's HIV/AIDS Initiative helped guide me through the process of finding good housing for me and my family."
Without the support of The Fund's HIV/AIDS Initiative, Maria explains, many people in performing arts and entertainment suffering will AIDS-related illnesses could not pay their rent or essential bills. "The stress factor of being so sick is enough, and it becomes overwhelming. The Fund has a support system. They took care of my kids and of me. I can call The Actors Fund and they will be there to respond," she said.
Today, Maria's son Joshua, 27, is a successful hip hop artist, and daughter Jhanna, 20, is enrolled at Morgan State University in Baltimore. "For my kids, it was a challenge in the beginning. People were not kind about their mom being infected with HIV. They told the kids that because I had the virus, then they must too."
But Maria stressed that The Fund helped her family overcome their fears by providing education and additional information on AIDS awareness, and brought her a sense of community, including access to a women's HIV support group. Maria said she plans on joining an ongoing Actors Fund writing group, which offers a sense of community to those suffering from HIV/AIDS and another outlet for their creative voices.
Maria has since become an award winning activist, helping raise awareness of HIV/AIDS in the African-American community. She speaks out on behalf of groups like LIFEbeat: The Music Industry Fights Aids, by showcasing new artists and spreading the message of HIV/AIDS prevention to New York City youth.
And by the way, she's twenty-two credits shy of receiving her Bachelor's in Arts and Communications from the College of New Rochelle, Rosa Parks Campus. "I'm studying communications. I figure I like to talk," she joked.
"Marjorie Roop, my counselor at The Actors Fund, helped to guide me on that continuum of education. In 1998, I was so sick and could not have gone to school. Today, I say as long as I'm living and breathing, I'm reaching for bigger and bigger dreams. Just because you have HIV/AIDS, you should never be deterred from living your dreams. The Actors Fund helped me, along with my faith and my family - to keep my strength."
Marjorie, a social worker with The Fund's HIV/AIDS Initiative has worked closely with Maria, and praised her resiliency and positive attitude. "After all that she's been through, there's no keeping Maria down. Her spirit has always been strong, even when she was at her lowest point. She has helped so many people as an AIDS awareness activist in the African-American community. She is beautiful and inspiring, with a positive, resilient and resourceful attitude, and an irrepressible spirit. It's a true privilege to be able to work with her."
"Make sure you donate and support The Actors Fund," Maria said, "especially in hard economic times. It would tragic if The Fund was not there for everyone in entertainment with HIV/AIDS. Every penny that you give counts."
Donate today to assure The Actors Fund's HIV/AIDS Initiative will continue to help everyone in entertainment, including people like Maria.
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