omar_mayes_web.jpgCORAL GABLES — Young and in college, when Kamaria Gammon became pregnant, she hid it from her family.

“I was embarrassed,” Gammon, now 29, said. “But then time passed and Medicaid was so backed up that I ended up having my baby at a local hospital without prenatal care.”

But if her parents were surprised to learn they had a granddaughter, she, in turn, was in for a big surprise herself.

A week after her daughter’s birth, the Polk County resident got a call from the hospital telling her to “stop whatever attempts I was making at breastfeeding and to come in as soon as possible.”

Her daughter had tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

“I went through an entire pregnancy without knowing the health of my baby or myself. No one should have to endure that,” she said.

Gammon is one of the participants in the Faces of HIV project, a statewide traveling exhibit that visually portrays the emotional aspects of the HIV/AIDS disease.

The Florida Department of Health (DOH) launched the project in 1999. Its latest stop will be at the University of Miami in Coral Gables and in Coconut Grove on March 23 and 24.

“We need to eradicate stigmas and give those who live with HIV a voice and a face,” said Jessica Hammonds, DOH press secretary. “The Faces of HIV project allows people from across the state to experience real-life stories of inspirational and courageous individuals who have shared their difficulties, battles and triumphs.”

Through the exhibit and personal accounts, participants address how they became infected with HIV, how they are handling their diagnoses and personal relationships, the effects of HIV on the body and how HIV affects their daily lives, Hammonds said.

“The exhibition allows visitors to gain a deeper understanding of people living with HIV and the changes that HIV brings to one’s life,” she said.

Omar Mayes, 36, said that he became involved in the project because he “wanted to help educate people and have them realize that we are humans that happen to suffer from a blood disorder.”

The Daytona Beach resident tested positive for HIV in November 2004.  “I developed a really bad cold and had a feeling that it was pneumonia but I wasn’t sure,” he said. “I had also developed thrush so I went to a clinic to get an antibiotic. That’s when the doctors tested me. At that point … I was thinking it was HIV but was in a state of denial.”

Mayes said it took time before he could bring himself to discuss his condition. “The African-American community does not embrace conversations about HIV and AIDS,” he said.  “I grew up in a very religious family, so there was that fear and embarrassment of being judged and ridiculed.”

But Mayes, who is a health care worker, now speaks openly about the disease during events and to his patients. “HIV was so far from my reality that I never thought I would be infected, let alone anyone I was close to,” he said. “But it can infect anyone.”

Gammon, too, said she wants people to talk more about HIV. “There are many misconceptions about how it’s transmitted and who can get the disease. That’s a problem,” she said.

People are engaging in an activity that can put them at risk and don’t even know that they are at risk. “They feel that it can’t happen to them. But HIV does not respect people; all it needs is an opportunity to present itself,” she said.

As for her daughter, Gammon said the child was routinely tested for a year. Now 9, her immune system has strengthened and her status is negative, she said.

Cynthia Roby may be reached at

WHAT: “Faces of HIV” exhibition
WHERE: University of Miami, 1306 Stanford Dr., near The Rock, Coral Gables
WHEN: From 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday, March 23
COST: Free and open to the public
WHAT: Faces of HIV and free HIV testing
WHERE: 3015 Grand Ave., Coconut Grove
From 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, March 24
COST: Free and open to the public

Photo: Omar Mayes