"THE AIDS GIRL"

THAT'S HOW RONDA CRACE WAS KNOWN IN PRESCOTT AFTER DRUG COPS INVADED HER HOME. AGAINST ALL ODDS, SHE'S REBUILDING HER REPUTATION

Last June, she formed a nonprofit organization that offers her speaking services to schools and churches. Crace calls it Hope Street Unlimited, which has a twin meaning: She moved to Hope Street in Prescott after the 1991 bust, and she strives to tell "a tragic story with a little bit of hope attached to it."

In recent months, Crace has spoken to hundreds of teens at public schools and churches in northern Arizona and in the Phoenix area. Hers is a conservative message that preaches abstinence and obeying one's parents.

But it's honest, as well, and the stacks of personal letters she has received from teenagers testify to Crace's impact.

"You changed my way of thinking totally," an Agua Fria High School football player wrote Ronda after she spoke at the school a few months ago. "At first, I wasn't sure if I could handle being there, because I felt kind of sad that you got the HIV. But as you went on talking, I realized that I was truly safe with you. I wish I had your courage."
Another student wrote: "I'm really sorry that sex gave you the HIV virus. I wish I could help you in some way, but I can't. So the only thing I can do is give you my love."

Crace never mentions PANT during her talks. "I don't want my kids to know, from me, at least, what the police can do with people who have AIDS," she says. "What I do is to beg them not to be standing where I am. I ask them, please, don't forget my face."

Prescott Christian's youth director vividly recalls her speech at the church. "Ronda is on the level," says Rich Bonney, who also is personnel director of Prescott's 600-employee Better-Bilt Corporation.

"How many of us are willing to hold our lives up to inspection like she is? 'I'm Ronda, I'm HIV-positive, and in all likelihood, I'll be dead in less than five years.' Everyone and everything just stops."
Aware that two-thirds of Arizona's new HIV victims last year were teenagers, the straight-talking Bonney says, "My kids are gonna know kids who are gonna die from AIDS, but it's just a concept for them. Ronda doesn't come across as a victim, but someone who screwed up in life and is paying dearly. The kids--girls and boys--see something of themselves in her."

Bonney read the sex-for-drugs stories in the Courier well before he met Ronda Crace. "I was shocked and disbelieving," he recalls. "I don't know how anyone could do this in our small town, but at first, I figured it had to be true."

After Judge Sult dismissed the criminal case, Bonney says, he had to admit to himself something had gone wrong. That wasn't easy. Bonney is a pro-police sort whom the Prescott Police Department recently asked to be its chaplain.

"Here's this person who has reached more people than many ministers," he says, "but she asked me if she could please attend our church service. She said I was liable to take heat--the 'AIDS girl' and all that crap. I couldn't believe it. In hindsight, I think there was some AIDS hysteria going on in her case. I told her, 'Come on in.'"
It's time for the 10:30 a.m. service. Crace walks up to the airy, simple chapel. She opens up her Bible, in which she has colored passages especially meaningful to her with a yellow marker. It's the Bible she says she prayed with to escape crack cocaine, the Bible stained with the remnants of flowers from her brother Roger's funeral.

Crace has warned her voice isn't her strongest virtue--she's right--but she's not shy about belting out a tune for Jesus during the sing-alongs. After one particularly uplifting number, she whispers something to her guest.

"God's love is bigger than AIDS," Ronda Crace says. "God's love is bigger than PANT."
@rule:
@body:The Phoenix Suns are battling the San Antonio Spurs on a television set at Penelope Parkenfarker's, a classy joint in downtown Prescott. An avid Suns fan, Ronda Crace suffers with everyone else in the restaurant as the underdog Spurs take an early lead.

She seems as comfortable sitting on a bar stool as she does in a church pew. Crace clearly is friendly with many, many people in Prescott. But Crace and her family--her father and brother--plan to move from Prescott to a small Tennessee town in a few months. That's one reason, she says, she is telling her story in print and allowing her photograph to be published.

By way of explanation, she hands over a poem she wrote the previous evening. It says, in part:

I want to be free from my city
Take time to see things and touch them and breathe
Giving all of the life that's inside me
Praying God I won't fast have to leave
For you see, I am but a spirit
I am blessed that my life's not a lie
And if you'll allow me to leave you
I promise I'll try not to die.

Crace insists she's leaving on her own terms, not PANT's.
"Maybe I'll crawl under a rock someday, but not today," Crace says. "Try as they did, PANT didn't run me out of town. I'm not ashamed of having AIDS--it's a disease. I just want to leave the shame behind that the police and the town tried to put on me and Chris."
It's uncertain what moving will mean to her relationship with her boyfriend, Pete. "I'm gonna die and it's not gonna be pretty," she says calmly. "I feel like I care enough about him to let him go. I can't marry him, can't give him 50 years, can't go in with him on a 30-year mortgage. I don't want him to drown just because I'm drowning."

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