Great Loss, Greater Gains
By Samantha Mendoza | Photography by Alice G. Patterson
Lanika Mabrey is a familiar figure on the Westside of Syracuse.
She walks through its streets frequently, bundled up in warm clothing in the cool winter weather, distributing educational pamphlets about sexual health to local bodegas and approaching local residents with her signature tote bag full of condoms.
“Good afternoon, can I give you some condoms?” she says to each stranger she encounters. “Here’s some PrEP information as well. Take care!”
Lanika has been involved with educating the local community about PrEP since July 2015. Pre-exposure prophylaxis — PrEP — is a revolutionary new daily medication that can reduce the risk of contracting HIV by up to 90 percent. After working with various local nonprofits for the past eight years — from Syracuse United Neighbors to Citizen Action to ACR Health — Lanika has become a symbol of strength and comfort in neighborhoods across the city.
“I grew up in an environment of addiction,” Lanika said of her childhood home on the Southwest side of the city. “It would be an injustice not to use my education — who I’ve become — for the betterment of my community.”
Lanika has become the person she is — vibrant, resilient and committed to reducing the local rates of HIV and AIDS — in part due to the loss she has endured.
In 2009, Lanika’s mother, Salendria, died of AIDS at the age of 54. Although her mother had been living with the disease for more than 20 years, Lanika wasn’t aware of her status until seven days before her death.
“It felt like a sledgehammer to my chest,” Lanika said. “I was blindsided by her loss, and it was such a tragedy that I just didn’t see a purpose in life.”
Lanika believes her mother didn’t disclose her HIV-positive status because of the stigma surrounding the disease when it first began spreading in the U.S. in the ’80s and ’90s, and because of the lack of understanding about the disease itself, especially among communities of color that have less access to health and educational resources.
“For a long time, I think, she lived in denial,” Lanika said. “There was no treatment and no connection to services. She just endured, alone.”
Lanika spent the months following her mother’s death coping with the shock and devastation, but soon began getting involved in community organizations her mother had once been part of.
“My mother was very active in the community, so I decided that I should start volunteering,” Lanika said. “I began to ask myself: How do I stop focusing on her death and start celebrating her life?”
Lanika soon found the answer when, after years of working with local groups on initiatives like health care advocacy and environmental justice, she became a prevention health advocate for ACR Health in 2013, specializing in educating local at-risk populations about HIV prevention methods. Working within her community to prevent the spread of the disease that her mother suffered from was rewarding, Lanika said, but not without challenges.
“There are still moments where I have to step away and cry, because I’m actually learning about my mom’s journey through my own journey,” Lanika said. “But the pain is also very motivating. I don’t want any other family to experience the pain that I experienced.”
It’s both this pain and the promise for change that motivates Lanika to continue her work in local communities. She considers community outreach — her strolls through the Southside and Westside of the city, speaking directly with the people who are most unconnected to health resources — to be her favorite part of the job.
She hopes her message of sexual health and HIV awareness will reach even the most underprivileged of Syracusans, preventing tragedies like the one she endured so many years ago, but still remembers each day.
Lanika’s life was changed by HIV. But through outreach and community health initiatives, she is changing the lives of countless others, offering hope, treatment and a message of resilience.
“In life, there is purpose, and if you take the time to really search, you will find it, even in the midst of challenges,” Lanika said. “That’s one of the great things about life: we may have challenges, but there is always something to hope for.” SWM
Friday, March 10 is National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. For more information on ACR Health, visit acrhealth.org. To find testing centers near you, visit gettested.cdc.gov. Lanika is photographed with her mother’s nurse, Barbara Yancey- Brewer.