Since 1989, the Miss America Pageant has required contestants to choose a platform to promote during their yearlong reign.
This year’s winner says she didn’t choose her platform, her platform chose her.
When Caressa Cameron was 8-years-old, she lost her uncle to AIDS, after her family cared for him the last six months of his life.
“At that age I didn’t understand what AIDS was, I just knew he was sick,” Cameron told FoxNews.com.
Her uncle’s death had such an impact on the Miss America titleholder’s family that soon after, they signed on to care for a foster child who was born with pediatric AIDS.
As Cameron got older, caring for the foster child helped her understand what AIDS was, and the social stigma that came along with it.
“There were a lot of kids in the neighborhood whose parents would not allow them to play with us, because they thought that if they touched our toys, that they could get HIV,” Cameron said.
The ignorance that Cameron saw firsthand was what made her decide that she had to help educate people about AIDS. As Miss America, Cameron sees a unique opportunity to spread the word about AIDS awareness.
“I knew I would have the ability to have a platform, and it would take me to places that I wouldn’t normally get to go,” she said. “Not just as Caressa Cameron, but as a ‘Miss’ someone—I would have that voice.”
While setting out to educate as many people as she can about AIDS, Cameron carries the memory of her uncle with her, along with others who have fought against the virus, who she said can still have a wonderful quality of life. She especially wants to address the public’s fears about coming into contact with people who have HIV.
“You’re not going to get HIV from someone because you shake their hand or because you touch something that they have,” she said. “These are not people with leprosy.”
Cameron said in her travels since winning the Miss America title in January, she has been shocked at how little people know about the conditions of HIV. Most young people she has met think HIV and other life-threatening diseases "can’t happen to them," or if they did contract the virus, they could take drugs to cure it. Even though there have been great strides in the medical community against AIDS, she said, people don’t understand the side effects and cost of these drugs.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve had to tell people, you can go to the bathroom, and this disease isn’t going to jump off the toilet at you,” she said.
In Cameron’s year as Miss America, she plans to work with the Centers for Disease Control and the Children’s Miracle Network to promote making healthy choices in order to avoid HIV. She will be participating in rallies and public service announcements sending out her message.
“Our campaign is that once you know about AIDS, it’s your responsibility. You don’t just hold on to the information, you share it with as many people as you can,” she said.