An ardent speaker who reached out to battle myths, the 24-year-old outlived her doctors' expectations.
Guadalupe (Lupe) Avendano arrived at Camp Heartland as a quiet, young teenager living under the veil of secrecy and shame because she had contracted HIV as a child. At that camp, a haven for children ages 7 to 15 who have HIV/AIDS or have friends or relatives who do, she found unconditional love -- and in the process was transformed into a strong and courageous woman who became an ambassador for those with the disease.
As part of the camp's Journey of Hope program, Avendano spoke to youths and adults at churches, schools and civic events throughout the United States, talking openly about what it was like to live with HIV, along with her hopes and dreams. She also attempted to dispel myths and stereotypes associated with those who have the disease, and to evoke compassion for victims from those who listened.
"She was so effective in sharing her stories with the audience and making them feel compassionate," said Neil Willenson, founder of Camp Heartland, in Willow River, Minn. The disease still has a stigma attached to it, and "she saw the need to improve the situation for young adults. That's why she was such an ardent speaker."
Avendano, 24, of New Hope, gave her last speech Dec. 1 at Iowa State University. She died from complications from AIDS March 4 at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis.
Born in Los Angeles, Avendano contracted HIV from a blood transfusion at birth. She lived in Mexico for several years with her mother before returning to the United States at age 6 when she became ill. Because her mother did not speak English, Avendano had to translate her own medical information from her doctor to her mother. That inspired her to study to become a medical interpreter to help Spanish-speaking patients.
Avendano was a 2002 graduate of Robbinsdale Cooper High School in New Hope and was only one college class short of realizing that goal when she died, said Susan Leckey, senior director of Camp Heartland.
"If ever there were a definition of unfair, you'd have to put Lupe in that," Leckey said. "When she spoke, she was empowered and told people that you can't catch AIDS by being a friend. She always said, 'Look at me, I have dreams and hopes, and I think like you. I only have this disease in my body.'"
Known for her upbeat personality, zest for life and big smile, Avendano had many friends, including former Minnesota Twins player and St. Paul native Paul Molitor, who once introduced Avendano simply as "Lupe" at a Cities 97 fundraising concert for Camp Heartland.
"She's like Cher and Madonna. She only needs one name," Leckey said. "She is a star in her own right."
Avendano outlived expectations of her doctors, and as a result also earned the nickname "Survivor," those who knew her said.
Avendano is survived by several family members and friends. Services have been held.