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Metro TeenAIDS reaches out to D.C. youth and adults

(Published June 14, 1999)

By ERICA WINTER

Special to The Common Denominator

Metro TeenAIDS targets D.C.-area youth and all those who raise them with one simple message: HIV infection is preventable.

The 10-year-old organization teaches kids, parents, teachers and other members of the community ways in which to prevent behaviors that may lead to infection, such as unprotected sex, drug use and poor decision making.

This summer, Metro TeenAIDS will launch "Uncensored," a city-wide program targeting schools, churches and the juvenile justice system with workshops, social gatherings and presentations. The program is designed to facilitate constructive dialogue with both kids and adults on HIV/AIDS, what leads to infection and how to prevent it. The 17 full-time staff members of Metro TeenAIDS will work with teachers, school nurses, parents, counselors and leaders in the faith community to help adults enable kids to make the choices that may save their lives.

"It’s about life choices," said Cassandra McFerson, director of D.C. programs. While also teaching kids the basics of physically preventing HIV transmission, Metro TeenAIDS works to teach life skills to kids, so they understand "the logical process behind saying ‘no’," McFerson said. The organization reaches about 35,000 people a year through its programs.

Currently, Metro TeenAIDS has a youth drop-in center called "Freestyle," located at 1523 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. The calendar of events at the center seeks to draw kids into a supportive environment to change any risky behaviors. One of the most popular events at Freestyle is the Urban Comic Book Night, during which young people can express themselves and address tough issues through art and writing. Although acquired immune deficiency syndrome is commonly thought of as a disease affecting gay men, Metro TeenAIDS tries to debunk this myth and structure its events so both straight and gay youth feel welcome and involved.

Metro TeenAIDS collaborates closely with other HIV/AIDS groups and D.C. institutions. The group has formal collaborative relationships with the Whitman-Walker Clinic, the Northern Virginia AIDS Ministry, Planned Parenthood and the health departments of the District, Virginia and Maryland.

Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive (HIPS) is one of Metro TeenAIDS’ closest collaborators. HIPS goes out on the streets on weekend nights in Metro TeenAIDS vans to try to get prostitutes off the streets. HIPS counselors talk to prostitutes willing to come up to the vans and get tested for HIV infection by Metro TeenAIDS staff and offer them a way out.

Metro TeenAIDS has also done events with the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League, the Latin-American Youth Centers and some D.C. schools. The group is also called in to do seminars for adults, such as a presentation it gave for the Environmental Protection Agency last December on how to talk to your kids about HIV/AIDS.

One of the group’s goals is to set up a formal relationship with the D.C. school system and school nurses to do HIV/AIDS education. "There can never be enough people trying to do the right thing," said Lori Swain, the group’s executive director.

With this in mind, Metro TeenAIDS this summer is expanding its reach all the way to Saratov, Russia. Metro TeenAIDS, HIPS and the Whitman-Walker Clinic were selected to set up a two-year program in Saratov – a large city southeast of Moscow – to target HIV/AIDS prevention education programs at youth, commercial sex workers and intravenous drug users.

Chosen after a national search by the group Population Service Inc. and funded through a USAID grant, Swain sees this as "an opportunity to show off our abilities," as well as to learn from another culture. Although far from the Metro TeenAIDS’ offices at 651 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, the program in Russia will have an impact on the group’s local work by getting its name out front for new collaborations and funding. "We’re gearing up for some great work," McFerson said.

To volunteer for Metro TeenAIDS, call Jason Bullock, program manager for D.C. programs, at (202) 543-9355. Also, Metro TeenAIDS will hold its sixth annual art auction 7 to 10 p.m. June 24 at the Women’s National Democratic Club. Call (202) 543-9355 for more information.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator