Teenagers teach each other truth about AIDS

NEW YORK — Two people between the ages of 13 and 24 are infected with HIV every hour in the United States. It’s no wonder then that Willie Hernandez of MTV’s “Real World Philadelphia” says, “I’m smart enough to be scared of this disease.”

Hernandez, 25, wants all young people to have that same fear — and the facts about HIV/AIDS — which is why he spoke at a Living Beyond Belief (LBL) press conference here on World AIDS Day, Dec. 1. LBL was premiering its series of public service announcements created by high school students for cable television.

“It’s important for teenagers to be aware — and scared,” Hernandez said. “Awareness is a big part of the solution.”

When Hernandez was in school “AIDS was taboo to talk about … frank discussion was taboo.” But it’s the details, Hernandez believes, that will save lives. “You have to get to the nitty-gritty.”

Getting into the nitty-gritty was what New York City high school teacher Wayne Fischer was trying to do when in 1990 he became the first teacher in the city to publicly disclose his HIV status.

Fischer launched a campaign to encourage young people to protect themselves and those they love from the heartbreak he and his family were enduring. He created an age-appropriate curriculum for New York City kids and a cable television show about his struggle with the disease. He also made an unsuccessful run for City Council, which featured “the condom campaign.” He was fearless —for a reason.

Fischer said he became a teacher because he “wanted to make a difference in other people’s lives.” With his campaign to get the facts about AIDS into the hands of teenagers, he was continuing that goal. He died in 1997.

His show, “AIDS: A Journal of Hope,” was, in essence, “the first reality TV show,” Fischer’s niece, Bari Zahn, told the press conference. Zahn co-founded LBL in 2002 to continue her uncle’s work. Its mission is to saves lives by fostering HIV/AIDS prevention education, raising awareness among youth and motivating public high school students to be HIV/AIDS peer educators and activists. It does this by providing them with college grants and recognition for their life-saving work.

Jose Luis Irizarry, a 2003 “Butterfly Award” grant winner and now head of LBL’s youth advisory board, said, “I want people to be empowered,” which he defines as different than educated. Empowering is helping teenagers learn that they can make a difference.

“They can be educated,” Irizarry said, “but if they don’t believe they matter and don’t protect themselves, we’ve failed.”

Young people often think they’re invincible — “it can’t happen to me.” Or “by the time I get it, there’ll be a cure.” Neither attitude is realistic. AIDS is on the rise in the Black and Latino communities and is the leading cause of death among women 25–34 in New York City. Although medication is helping to prolong the lives of people with AIDS, the reality of what they go through “is not pretty,” Zahn said.

However, another important fact to take note of is this: AIDS is a preventable disease.

To learn more about LBL and the grants it provides, go to www.livingbeyondbelief.org.

The author can be reached at crummel@pww.org.