Twins Keisha and Kevin Diggs have grown up with the human immunodeficiency virus, commonly known as HIV. Fortunately, the 17-year-olds from Frankford are not infected with the virus, but their lives have been profoundly affected by it.
Their mom, Terrie Hawkins, tested positive for HIV during routine prenatal testing while she was pregnant with the twins. The children did not inherit the virus thanks to Hawkins’ early detection and treatment, according to the mom.
Nonetheless, Kevin and Keisha have been infusing their strong work ethic and delightful personas into Philadelphia’s vast HIV/AIDS support community as long as they can remember, probably longer. On April 5, AIDS Fund Philly — the city’s leading advocacy organization for HIV/AIDS awareness and services — will honor the twins for their many years of volunteerism. Kevin and Keisha will be presented with the Ferrara Family Volunteerism Award during Black-Tie GayBINGO, the AIDS Fund’s annual gala fundraiser.
AIDS Fund created the Ferrara Award in 2005 in honor of Somerton residents Phil and Immy Ferrara and their late son Philip, an aspiring fashion designer and well-known Dancin’ On Air regular who contracted HIV as a teen, developed AIDS symptoms and died from them in 1994 at age 23. After Philip’s death, first Immy then Phil used their own HIV/AIDS volunteerism to cope with their anguish.
“We like to recognize volunteers who are symbolic of our entire volunteer pool and who go above and beyond in many ways. [Keisha and Kevin] are representative of some of our best volunteers,” said Robb Reichard, the AIDS Fund executive director.
Keisha, a student at Charter High School of Architecture and Design, and Kevin, a Constitution High School student, began hanging around the AIDS Fund office at 13th and Spruce streets as toddlers. Their mom took a part-time job there while studying for her high school diploma. Hawkins still works at the office and is two months away from earning a bachelor’s degree in social work from Temple University.
“The earliest I remember is when I was like 4. I think I was blowing up condoms like they were balloons,” Kevin said during a recent interview at the Frankford branch library.
“I remember we walked in the AIDS Walk with my friends. It was fun but I got a blister on my foot. I should’ve worn more comfortable shoes,” Keisha said.
The siblings have remained involved ever since, whether it’s helping their mom around the office stuffing envelopes and shredding old paperwork or helping her staff informational booths at public events. The twins also work the monthly GayBINGO at the Gershman Y. Those monthly games are not to be confused with the grandiose April 5 affair at the swanky Crystal Tea Room in the Wanamaker Building.
“I mostly do it because of my mom. I love her and we’re extremely close,” Kevin said.
“We always feel like we’re helping people,” Keisha added.
Founded in 1989, AIDS Fund is a partnership of 30 organizations that provide services directly to those affected by HIV and AIDS while raising public awareness of the need for early detection and treatment.
As a city, Philadelphia’s HIV rate is five times the national average and 50 percent higher than New York City’s, Reichard said. About 20,000 people are living with HIV in Philadelphia with another 10,000 in surrounding communities. Those numbers are merely estimates because about one in five HIV carriers are untested and undiagnosed. What was once considered a disease for gay people and intravenous drug users now permeates all sectors of society.
“HIV is still on the rise and people choose not to know their status,” Hawkins said. “Anybody that has sex needs to know their status.”
AIDS Fund also writes grant applications for its partner organizations and raises money through the AIDS Walk and GayBINGO. The walk draws 10,000 to 12,000 participants to the Ben Franklin Parkway each October, along with 500 to 700 bingo players each month. About 400 volunteers staff the walk and 30 to 40 work the bingo games. AIDS Fund has just four full-time employees and one part-timer.
“We are a very small organization. We rely heavily on volunteers,” Reichard said. “Our partner organizations on the front lines serve thousands of people every year and we reach literally millions of people with our public outreach campaigns.”
The Ferrara Award is one way that the organization recognizes those who help make all of that possible.
“I think we were destined to win the award,” Kevin Diggs said.
“I think they were born into it,” Hawkins said.
For information about Black-Tie GayBINGO and other AIDS Fund programs, visit AIDSFundPhilly.org or call 215-731-9255. ••