In the spring of my freshman year, we learned that my favorite teacher, Mr. Phillips, had AIDS. He contracted the disease five years earlier from a tainted unit of blood he received during an emergency appendectomy. I noticed that during the final few weeks of his tenure he didn't seem to be his usual dynamic self. He seemed tired, thinner and very drawn. He'd lost the sparkle in his eye and his effervescent charm. I though he was haivng personal problems or maybe the flu. I was devastated at the announcement of his illness and shattered by the thought of losing such a fine man at such a young age.
A few days after the announcement I answered an ad in the newspaper seeking volunteers for a program designed to promote AIDS awareness in the community. When I attended the first meeting, I discovered that I was one of only 20 respondents, and the only one currently enrolled in high shcool.
The Committee chairman, Mrs. Muntz, politely tried to send me home. She thought I was too young to deal with the sensitive subject matter and doubted my parents would approve. She was silent when I told her of my motivation and that my parents had driven me to the meeting. I stayed.
The Warren Community AIDS Committee began with 15 official members, ranging in age from 55 to 14 (me). I was the only student and the only heterosexual in the group. I realized immediately how much I was needed. The group originally envisioned its role to be largely ceremonial in nature. We'd organize fundraisers, solicit donations and arrange for speakers to give informational lectures around town. The focus seemed to be raising money to help those who were already sick.
I immediately approached Mrs. Muntz to suggest a more urgent need: education. I was just a high school freshman, but I knew that many of my peers were already sexually active. I also knew that their knowldege about sexually transmitted diseases fairly sketchy. I felt the best contribtion our group could make would be to offer an AIDS educational seminar to junior high shcool and high school students in the community. Because of Mr. Phillips, we already knew that AIDS was a killer. We needed better information to ensure that we didn't become its next victims.
I became the official liaison between the group and the school principals. I worked with students at my own school to recruit volunteers for the AIDS education program. We decided that the place to start the classes was in junior high schools, and that senior high school students would be the best ones to teach them. Thirty of us went through 5 days of rigorous training and became AIDS awareness counselors. We leanred all about AIDS, teen pregnancy, STD's and condom use. We also leanred how to present the material in an effective and responsible manner.
Our first classes were difficult and sometimes amusing. We each presented our material to a seventh-grade health class. It took some time before I could say terms like "vaginal secretions", "ejaculation" and "testicular" without either giggling or turning beet red. But the message was so powerful and so important that I never lost my focus. By the last few hours of the program, I could tell that the material was sinking in. The kids started to open up to us and ask relevant questions about being ready for sex and how to say no. We discussed self-esteem, putting your own safety first and being true to your own values. We provided the very lectures that I wish someone had given me at the same age.
During the past four years, the program has expanded throughout neighboring school systems. I continue to teach classes and train new participants. During the past year I have taken a more visible role on the Committee and often give speeches on AIDS awareness to PTA groups, church groups and at the National Teen Health Conference. We won an award this past year for having the best AIDS program in the state and I was proud to accept it for our Committee.
Although I am graduating this year, the AIDS awareness program continues to have deep meaning for me. Mr. Phillips died from AIDS last year, but I am determined to do my part to prevent others fom getting the disease. I'm proud that I took the time at age 14 to attend that first meeting and to convince the adults to let me stay. I'm grateful that they accepted my ideas and supported the junior high school program. I'll probably never know if my work actually saves a life, but I suspect that it will. Any junior high student comfortable in a discussion on vaginal secretions will be able to discuss these issues responsibly with his partner. They'll have the information they need to make safe, informed decisions about their health. I can't imagine a greater success than that.