CALUMET CITY | Rae Lewis-Thornton hopes Thornton Fractional North students take one thing, if nothing else, from her talk in the school's auditorium Friday.
"At the end of the day, what I really want you to do is to never experience my life," she said. "There is no sex worth your life."
Lewis-Thornton was diagnosed HIV positive in 1986 after donating blood in the aftermath of a train accident in Virginia. She has been living with full-blown AIDS for 22 years.
Lewis-Thornton was deputy national youth director for the Rev. Jesse Jackson's 1984 presidential campaign and national youth director for Jackson's 1988 campaign. She's also worked on senatorial campaigns for Barbara Mikulski and Carol Moseley Braun and was Illinois state youth coordinator for the Michael Dukakis 1988 presidential campaign.
She spoke as part of T.F. North's Health Awareness Month. The school's Action Team will host a walk-athon to raise funds for AIDS awareness and prevention charities May 2.
Lewis-Thornton talked about struggling through medical side effects, her relationships with men before and after her diagnosis, and how she stays positive.
"I have AIDS. I have AIDS," she said. "It's true what they say, that you can't always look at a person and tell, huh? You don't see it, do you? I look pretty good, don't I?"
The teenagers, many wearing red-and-white AIDS awareness T-shirts, laughed, nodded their heads and seemed to take what they were hearing very seriously.
The biggest laughs and cheers came when Lewis-Thornton asked the kids to follow her on Instagram and Twitter. Many of them pulled phones from pockets to do so right away.
"At high schools, there's this thing that's supposed to happen," Lewis-Thornton said. "I'm supposed to come here and I'm supposed to tell you, 'Don't have sex while you're here or you're going to get HIV.' Somehow, that's supposed to save your life.
"I don't do this for you to walk out those doors and say, 'Man, she was a good speaker.' I do this for you to walk out those doors and think about your life."
She related her own priorities as a result of being what she called a "prisoner" to the illness.
"The best thing I have going for me is that I'm trying to die with a little dignity," she said. "I'm keeping my head above water, but that comes hard with this disease called AIDS."