Raising awareness for people living with HIV/AIDS


Ashley Murphy is one of four young Canadians recognized for contributing to their communities with a Prince’s Youth Service Award.

ashley murphy speaking on stage in page

When Ashley Murphy was about seven years old, her parents told her something she found nearly impossible to comprehend. They revealed that she had been born with AIDS, which she contracted from her late birth mother. She was too young to grasp what that meant, but she knew it was serious — her parents instructed her not tell a soul at school. They thought that if people found out, she’d be an easy target for bullying.

Murphy, though, has never been one to stay quiet. Almost immediately, she started telling anyone who would listen about the disease. She got strange looks and, in later years, some of her friends’ parents were nervous about having her sleep over. But she didn’t get the taunts and accusations her parents had anticipated. In hindsight, it’s a good thing she spoke up: she now travels the world telling people what it’s like to grow up with HIV/AIDS.

For her contribution, the 18-year-old Murphy, along with three other young Canadians, received the prestigious Prince’s Youth Service Awards in October 2016. In 2015, HRH The Prince of Wales, along with Prince’s Charities of Canada, teamed up with WE, the global movement founded by Canadian brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger, to honour young Canadians who have made a positive impact on others both locally and globally.

Award winners become part of a network of young Canadians who have been recognized by The Prince of Wales for their achievements. The idea behind the award is to encourage other youth to be active in their communities and to make a difference in the lives of others.

“It’s one of the more important programs for recognizing Canadian youth,” says Wayne Bossert, the deputy chairman and head of ultra high net worth clients for RBC Wealth Management, which sponsors the award. “We’re delighted to recognize young people who are creating positive change in their communities.”

The financial institution has long been a supporter of the Prince’s Charities in Canada, stemming from an original $200,000 donation in 2014 for an initiative called Place Strategy. The program had already existed in the UK – it helps improve some of the most disadvantaged communities in the country – but RBC and Prince’s Charities in Canada brought the program here, piloting a model in communities across the country in 2015. 

The Prince’s Youth Service Award is yet another way for RBC, HRH The Prince of Wales, and WE to support Canadian communities and leaders. “The awards encourage lasting commitment to social action by Canada’s youth,” says Bossert.

Helping young people thrive

When Murphy got the call that she had won, the first thing she asked her mom was, “Does this mean Prince Harry knows I’m alive?” Of course, raising awareness about living with HIV/AIDS, particularly for young people like her, is what really drives her. And she’s happy to share the honour of receiving the Prince’s Youth Service Award with other youth who have also made an impact on their communities in four categories: local community, sustainability, social innovation, and global leadership – Murphy’s award category.

Faith Dickinson, 13, of Douro-Drummer, Ontario, started Cuddles for Cancer, an organization that makes fleece cuddle blankets for patients undergoing cancer treatments. Jessica Mays, 17, of Pierson, Manitoba, founded a sustainability group at her school and replaced the recycling bags in each classroom with reusable burlap bags, among other eco-friendly initiatives. Brennan Wong, 18, of Richmond Hill, Ontario, started Pledges for Change, an organization that empowers young people to create online pledges and commit to doing good in the world.

“We’re delighted to recognize young people who are creating positive change in their communities,” says Bossert of RBC Wealth Management. “The awards encourage young Canadians to realize their potential, pursue their dreams and lead their communities through service and action at home and around the world, which echoes RBC’s commitment to youth. “

Bossert adds that RBC is committed to using its size, scale, broad reach and passionate people to “drive positive change for Canadians by helping to empower and build young people’s confidence and potential.” Why? “Because Canada’s future depends on our collective ability to harness the energy and optimism of young people,” explains Bossert. To that end, RBC has been investing more time and effort into helping young people succeed. “Through timely and effective investment, we can help improve Canada’s path forward, both economically and socially,” says Bossert.

Giving others a voice

Part of what drives Murphy to continue sharing her story with thousands of people across Canada and the U.S. is the belief that many young people with HIV/AIDS live in communities that aren’t as open as hers. They often live in fear, they’re subject to bullying, and they’re unsure if they’ll be able to live a normal life. Murphy hopes that, by speaking out, she can give a voice to those who can’t speak up, and simultaneously dispel the myths that still prevail about HIV/AIDS.

It’s important for Murphy to inform people that HIV/AIDS remains an issue. Many people think otherwise  –  yet 400 babies are still born with HIV every year globally. It’s also afflicting an increasing number of youth. As recently as 2014, one in five new HIV diagnoses was in people aged 13 to 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S. “A lot of people think that they don’t know anyone with HIV, so it must be gone,” she says. “But people still need to educate themselves and protect themselves, or they could end up contracting HIV/AIDS.”

Raising awareness by speaking out     

Murphy is now a theatre major at York University in Toronto, but she has no plans to curtail her work. Public speaking as been a lifelong activity for her: she started talking to groups when she was just 10 years old, after her doctor asked her to talk to other doctors and nurses about having AIDS as a child. Then she started speaking to other children.

Over the years, Murphy’s audiences have grown. In 2016, she spoke at 15 WE Day events, which took place in arenas across North America. She often addresses crowds of 16,000 people at once. Talking to such large audiences was a little overwhelming at first, she says, partly because thousands of people would find out all at once that she has AIDS.

Murphy was also a little nervous about how people at her school – the ones who didn’t know her story – would feel about sharing classes with her. “My school was live streaming the first WE Day event that I spoke at, and while a lot of people knew me in my grade, other students didn’t  know about my HIV status,” she says. “But when I got back to school, people were high-fiving me and saying they were so proud.” She hopes that others will one day receive that kind of reception from their own communities. 

Until that happens, Murphy is going to share her story. Many people have come to her after hearing her talk to say that she emboldened them to share their own stories, and that, she says, makes what she does worth it. While she does hope to act and sing in the future, humanitarian and advocacy work will always be a top priority for Murphy. “My dream is to be able to do all of these things,” she says. “I want to help people, I want to be happy, and I just want to live life.”