From hard beginnings to promising future

Job title: Soon-to-be high school graduate, HIV/AIDS activist and motivational speaker

Age: 18

Why is she a 2016 Top 40: She is an inspiration to everyone who has ever been bullied or alienated for being different. Even though the odds were against her from birth, she has turned her experiences and hardships into a cause, helping people around the globe.

From a very young age, Ajax resident Ashley Murphy knew she was different. She took medication daily and had far more visits to doctors than any of her friends.

At the age of seven, Ashley’s foster mother, Kari Murphy, and her foster father, sat her down and told her she has the HIV virus, contracted at birth from her mother who abused drugs. From there, Ashley turned the situation into a positive, speaking at various events, using her status to reduce stigma and prevent bullying.

When Ashley’s parents told her about the virus, she couldn’t possibly understand the stigma surrounding it. Although her parents advised against openly sharing her status, in fear of bullying and alienation, that didn’t stop Ashley – she told anyone and everyone.

“She started telling everyone, random kids she would meet at the park, kids at school, cashiers at the grocery store, everyone,” says her mother, Kari.

According to Kari, most kids were nice and even parents were nice to her face, but actively worked to get her banned from playing with neighbourhood kids. One parent even went as far as to try to get Ashley uninvited to a birthday sleepover.

Ashley continued to share her story.

At the age of 10, Ashley was asked by her doctors at The Hospital for Sick Children to speak at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Research Conference. During the conference, Ashley and two 16-year-old boys, who were also born HIV-positive, shared their story about living with HIV and AIDS.

Ashley was the only one of the group living openly with the virus. During the conference, one of the boys (we’ll call him John) shared how he had to change schools and had to move because when people found out, the bullying was out of control.

According to Kari, this lit a spark in Ashley and she started to think about how she could use the fact that she was living openly and turn it around so others wouldn’t face the same experiences as John.

A year later John’s mother contacted Kari and asked if Ashley would be interested in being in a Global 16X9 documentary titled “Growing up with AIDS”. This was exactly the thing Ashley was looking for in her mission to help reduce the stigma around HIV and AIDS.

Shortly after, when Ashley was 12, she was elected as student council vice-president at her school, St. James Catholic School in Ajax, and was sent to a WE Day event in Toronto, which features inspirational speakers.

When she came back from the event, Ashley was inspired.

“She kept talking about WE Day and how she wanted to speak on that stage. She thought if she could explain the facts of HIV and show kids that regular kids can have it too and live normal lives, that she could help decrease the stigma and bullying,” says Kari. “WE Day is when she really found her own cause/voice.”

In 2014, Ashley spoke on WE Day’s speaking tour to an audience of more than 16,000 people in Ottawa.

Ashley volunteers regularly with various foundations throughout Durham Region and was recognized with the 2014 Ajax Civic Youth Award last year, awarded to her extensive work.

“It has been remarkable to watch her bloom in many ways,” says Kari. “The pride in her generosity and bravery is incredible, but also it is remarkable to think about the seemingly insurmountable odds she has overcome.”

Now 18, Ashley is about to graduate from Archbishop Denis O’Connor Catholic High School and is looking forward to her future. Ashley loves to sing and act and has decided to attend York University for theatre in the fall.

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Alyssa Bugg is a second-year journalism student at Durham College. When it comes to writing and reporting, she enjoys covering events and connecting with her audience by writing about topics she feels matter to them. She likes to spend her spare time on both her personal and The Chronicle's Twitter accounts (for hours - it's a problem), researching and reading about audience engagement and spending some down time with her bunny, Mac. Alyssa hopes to work in a communications role or news organization in a digital capacity following graduation.

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