Venita Ray is not your typical attorney. She is, however, your typical human being.
She loves to have fun and enjoy life and she has a strong passion for social justice, equity and advocacy. After viewing her strong disposition, listening to her talk and catching a glimpse of her engaging smile, it would be hard to fathom that Venita is actively living with HIV.
Venita has a testimony worth listening to.
Growing up in the projects in California, Venita experienced several challenges involving her family. Her father was not actively involved in her life and her mother was an alcoholic. Many of those family struggles caught up with Venita.
Venita got pregnant at the age of 14 and became a teenage mother at the age of 15. Venita dropped out of school to raise her daughter and after turning to a life of drugs and alcohol, ended up on welfare trying to raise her child and make ends meet.
In her late twenties, Venita joined Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), got sober, went back to high school and got her diploma. Ten years later, she finished law school, landed her dream job in Washington D.C. and was on her way to being the poster child for a made-for-TV movie.
April 2, 2003, Venita was dealt a huge blow she never saw coming and once again her life was turned upside down.
While serving as an Assistant Attorney General for the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia, Venita, had her life change drastically when she was diagnosed with HIV. Like many other women and men in this country, Venita had unprotected sex with a man she trusted and contracted the virus.
"As much as I tried to deal with the knowledge of finding out I had HIV, it was so hard to deal with," says Venita. "I would go to work during the day and come home at night and feel dead inside. Because I had gotten so depressed, I made a decision to move to Houston (Texas) to die, because that was where my daughter and sister were."
In 2004, Venita relocated to Houston to be near her family and instead of focusing on dying, she got involved in HIV advocacy as a way of coming to terms with her diagnosis.
"The biggest problem I had was feeling that HIV was bigger than me," says Venita. "As soon as I made the decision to take back my life and seek to make a difference, I became stronger and now I know that HIV is not a death sentence for me or anyone."
Since that time, Venita has been committed to raising awareness about HIV, reducing stigma, and teaching others to advocate for issues that impact the HIV community. Currently, Venita is Project Coordinator for the Positive Organizing Project at Legacy Community Health Services.
Positive Organizing Project is designed to revitalize a grass-roots, organizing movement among people living with HIV and AIDS that impacts HIV-related stigma, raises education and awareness among policy makers, and indirectly improves outcomes along the continuum of care. The program supports local organizing efforts to address stigma and engagement in care. This is being accomplished by (1) revitalizing the movement of HIV-positive mobilization in local communities, and (2) ensuring synergistic efforts that help us document models that are effective in achieving organizing goals, and can be shared and scaled elsewhere. Houston-based Legacy Community Health Services is one of the current partners in the Positive Organizing Project.
In addition to being the Project Coordinator for the Positive Organizing Project at Legacy Community Health Services, Venita is a practicing attorney who has worked in economic development, urban planning, and community engagement. Venita received her law degree from American University Washington College of Law and a Bachelors of Arts Degree in Public Administration from San Diego State University. She is also a yoga instructor and has a passion for health and fitness.
According to Venita, "focusing on health and fitness after my HIV diagnosis allowed me to reclaim power over my life."
Today, Venita lives by the motto — No Excuses.
One of the primary lessons we can learn from Venita is that no matter what we go through and whatever obstacles we face, we should never give up.