MANATEE -- Wendell Martin celebrates Worlds AIDS Day by texting pastors he knows in Manatee County to remind them to pray for people who have succumbed to the disease and for people still living with the virus.
He said he knows firsthand the ups and downs of living with HIV/AIDS because he's lived with the virus since 1983.
"If they hear it from church, they will know it's truth, because truth is supposed to come from the pulpit," Martin said. "More churches are preaching about being safe now."
Prevention and raising awareness about the disease is Martin's personal mission.
"At the time I was diagnosed, no one was speaking out," Martin said. "At that time, a lot of my friends were dropping and dying."
Every year since the inception of the Manatee County World AIDS Day Breakfast, Martin has been an intricate part of organizing the event. Martin, a retired nurse and businessman, and a team of about 20 community volunteers helped the Manatee County NAACP put together the event at 8 a.m. Friday at St. Mary Missionary Baptist Church, 1006 First St. W.
"We come together as a group of people because we care about the community," Martin said.
He invited close friend, Liesha McKinley-Beach, the Southern Regional coordinator for the Black AIDS Institute, to speak at the breakfast. He will introduce her speech.
Martin said he enjoys encouraging people to be safe and to get tested because 25 years ago a friend asked him to be tested for HIV. He still remembers hearing the life-changing news.
"It was Nov. 21, 1983, at 11:45 a.m." said Martin.
All he could think was: "I'm going to die. You had a survival rate of none."
He said when he was diagnosed, HIV-positive people were stigmatized.
"I've had people who were supposed to be my friend turn their back on me. One woman wouldn't let me use her bathroom," Martin said of a former close friend.
The now 59-year-old credits his longevity to his faith in God and staying positive. In 1996, 13 years after being diagnosed with the virus, he was categorized as having full-blown AIDS, but he still remains optimistic.
"I eat healthy, period. I stay away from fried food, exercise on a daily basis, I eat fruit and veggies," Martin said. "I take care of me because it's my responsibility."
Since his diagnosis, he's advocated for awareness in the community, lobbied lawmakers in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., for better medical treatment and health education in schools and has spoken about prevention at dozens of churches in Manatee County and around Florida.
In Florida last year, the number of HIV-related deaths decreased 8 percent from the previous year. Deaths have declined 79 percent since the peak in 1995, according to the Florida Department of Health.
The World AIDS Day Breakfast serves as a precursor to the annual AIDS Day Walk in Sarasota, which is a collaboration between Manatee and Sarasota county organizers.
Susan Stubbs, Martin's close friend and a volunteer for Friday's breakfast, said Martin truly wants to help people and families affected by the virus.
"He's very dedicated and committed to the cause, in the United States and out of the United States," Stubbs said.
She said she has known Martin since they were children.
"He's always been a give-back person, he's been blessed and he's a true believer of blessing others," said Stubbs. "He's blessed to be alive and to have the virus as long as he has."
Information: HIV/AIDS and testing, call the Manatee County Health Department at 941-748-0747. For more information on the Manatee County World AIDS Day Breakfast, call 941-545-5992.
Janey Tate, city of Bradenton and Palmetto reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041. You can follow her on Twitter at Janey_Tate.