Ashley Murphy can do many things well – act, sing and rouse a crowd with one of her inspiring public speeches. But keeping a secret isn't one of them.
When seven years old, and living in foster care, the child with a tawny ponytail learned for the first time that she had been born with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
It's why she had a feeding tube poking through her pink dance leotard, why she swallowed so many pills and visited the doctors all the time. But don't tell anyone, her concerned caregivers cautioned. In case others can't understand.
The little girl had a better idea.
"The first thing I did when in the park, swinging on my swing, was turn to the people left of me and say, 'Hi. My name is Ashley and I have HIV,' then turn to the people right of me, and same thing, 'Hi. My name is Ashley and I have HIV.' I just thought it better to tell the truth."
Today, the engaging 18-year-old, a popular We Day speaker, uses her candour to advocate for others similarly affected by HIV who might lack her courage.
"I've met so many who are afraid to tell people of their status because they are afraid of being bullied or worse," says Ms. Murphy, recipient of the first We Day Global Leaders prize administered by the Prince's Youth Service Awards, a new program, established by Prince Charles, honouring young Canadians who serve as positive role models in their communities.
"I want to be the voice for those too afraid to speak for themselves."
A first-year student in the theatre department at Toronto's York University, Ms. Murphy contracted the virus during childbirth from her drug-addicted mother, now deceased. She wasn't expected to live beyond the cradle.
When a newborn, she developed full-blown AIDS and fell into a coma lasting three months. Children's Aid called 200 families in hopes that one might take a sick baby into palliative care. All said no, save for the Murphys who offered to take her into their blended family of 10 naturally born, adopted and foster-care children in Ajax, Ont.
Told the infant would be with them only a month before dying, foster parents Kari and Don Murphy, thought otherwise: "My mom tells me as soon as she took me through her door, she knew I wasn't going anywhere. I had found my forever home."
Love and acceptance on top of advances in HIV/AIDS research have enabled Ms. Murphy not only to survive her illness but also to live a reasonably healthy and productive life. She has learned to manage her HIV to the point that the virus is now barely detectable. "I have HIV but it doesn't define me," says Ms. Murphy whose goal is to see mother-child HIV transmission eliminated in her lifetime.
Until then, the plan is to have a career in theatre, a demanding field of the entertainment business requiring her to sing and act. She believes she has the energy – and the drive – to make it.
"My message when I speak to people is this isn't just my story," Ms. Murphy says. "Having hope and overturning obstacles is something we can all do, whether we are 7, 17 or 70. It's about changing perspectives, and believing that, no matter what it is you are going through, you can achieve your dreams."