AIDS Ed in the 'Hood

Bronx Teenagers Take Prevention to the Streets

Poe Park, where the poet once lived, is a sliver of green that runs for just a block along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, but the park attracts a crowd. Some come to watch the dog fights, others to smoke a joint, but most come "to pick up girls or guys," says 19-year-old Dennis Gonzales. "Everybody here likes sex." He smiles and says, "That's why I come here."

Sex is also what draws a group of six teenage girls to this park--but these high school students are AIDS educators. Their debut is today, and Gonzales

is their first student. Two of the girls walk up to him and his friends, chatting them up and offering information packs containing condoms.

"At first I thought, 'No, I'm not interested,' " Gonzales says. "But then I saw the condoms and I thought, 'They're trying to save somebody's life.' "

Indeed they are. Startling as it may seem in this era of wonder drugs, outreach workers like these high school kids still form the front line against HIV. A year ago this week, President Clinton committed the nation to develop an AIDS vaccine in 10 years, an extremely ambitious, some say unrealistic, goal. In the meantime, Clinton has hobbled AIDS prevention by his recent refusal to fund needle-exchange programs, which reduce the spread of HIV.

And so the virus continues its march. Last month, the Centers for Disease Control reported that while the AIDS death rate is declining--mainly because of protease inhibitors--the rate of new infections hasn't slowed. And those infections are occurring in precisely the people this outreach team is targeting: black and Latino youths.

Blacks bear the epidemic's brunt: While they make up 12 per cent of the U.S. population, they account for about 40 per cent of all AIDS cases, more than any other ethnic group. But earlier this month, a gathering of national Latino leaders was shocked to learn how HIV is devastating their community (see sidebar, "¡Emergencia!") Latinos make up about a tenth of the population, but they account for almost a fifth of current AIDS cases. If these trends continue, Latinos with HIV will surpass whites with the virus in five years.

Unfortunately the same problems that help the virus--poverty, racism, and difficulties with English--also make it hard for communities of color to fight back. White agencies draw on a large and well-heeled donor base, but that's much harder to find in the Bronx. The agency sponsoring the six outreach workers--Young Adults Against Drugs & Alcohol, or YAADA--is five years old but operates out of cramped offices on just $250,000 a year. Even though AIDS prevention is its central mission, the agency can't just focus on HIV because vulnerability to the virus is interwoven with all the other problems that confront kids in the Bronx, as Edwin Ortiz, YAADA's founder, knows firsthand. His aunt and uncle died of AIDS, and the IV-drug use that let the virus into their bodies also scarred two of their children with "a lot of psychological problems" that persist to this day.

So YAADA stretches its meager budget. About 400 teenagers attend its programs, which range from housing and welfare advocacy to health referrals and rap groups, including one of the only groups in the Bronx for gay and bisexual kids. YAADA's AIDS educators reach more than 1500 people a year, telling them about safer sex and encouraging them to get tested.

"I was thinking all these teenagers would be like, 'No,' or 'Whatever,' "says Grismaldi Irizarry, 16. "But a lot of them were really open-minded."

One of the tougher audiences was a group of guys playing football. Two of them, who looked a few years older than the outreach workers, laughed and said they already knew everything about sex. But one younger homie asked a lot of questions, and then others joined in. Some clearly wanted to flirt more than learn, but the young women used such attention as an opportunity to slip in AIDS information.

As outreach worker Jackie de Jesus walked away from the curious boy, she called out to the whole group, "That's the man who thinks!" One of the guys bantered back, "You think he's a man? You just made Shorty's day!"

For adolescents, admitting ignorance about sex can bring teasing and ridicule, so frank education is critical. "One in four people with HIV was infected before age 21," says Donna Futterman, director of the Adolescent AIDS Program at Montefiore Medical Center. For this age group, she says, IV-drug use is not the main HIV conduit: "Overwhelmingly, young people are getting infected sexually."

And yet teenagers in New York City report that their schools are failing to give them adequate sex ed. De Jesus says she hasn't gotten any information at all. She's not alone. More than 700 New York City high school students were surveyed by ACT UP's Youth Education Life Line (YELL). Thirty-nine per cent said they had been given no AIDS education last year. Only 10 per cent had received six classes, though the Board of Education mandates that many lessons.

But even when schools do provide AIDS information, "they don't give you details, the real information that teens want to hear," says Irizarry. Condom demonstrations are banned in city classrooms, even though improper use can make rubbers break.

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