Conference brings awareness about AIDS to young students

By Nanci G. Hutson
Danbury, CT

  DANBURY - Immaculate High School sophmore Christine Daria used to think AIDS was irrelevant to her life. It was just another disease.

  In a few short hours, her perceptions were shattered.

  "I have a whole different perspective about AIDS," said Christine, after the morning session of the Youth Reacting to AIDS first all-day youth empowerment conference. "I used to think it was a regular disease; now it's real scary."

Eric Garrison, an AIDS educator and high school teacher, was the keynote speaker at the workshop in Danbury
  About 80 students and 20 adults heard the story of a young, homosexual man and recovering drug addict who two years ago tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome).   His story packed a punch.

  "I wouldn't wish this disease on anyone," said Rick W., a local hairdresser.

  So far, the stocky 24-year-old is healthy. He has suffered only one bout of AIDS-related pneumonia, but his body has a more difficult time combating infection. He tires more easily, but he is alive, and most importantly, is liviing drug free.

  "You don't need that (drug addiction) in your life because there's a lot out there for you - college, the military, or the work force. I have a much beter time drug-free than I ever did on drugs," said Rick, a recovering crack/cocaine addict.

  Rick thanked the group for its concern about this disease and implored it to continue its efforts to educate others.

  Those sentiments were shared by most of the adults attending the conference, held at Western Connecticut State University.

  "One day, when your children ask what you did to prevent the spread of AIDS, you can say, 'Everything in my power.' That's empowerment," said keynote speaker Eric Garrison, a German teacher from Maryland who travels the country doing educational seminars on AIDS.

  "One voice won't make much of a beep, but all your voices together will create a chorus for AIDS awareness," he said.

  Garrison, who is writing a book titled, "Think Positive, Test Negative," told students the choices people make abouttheir sexuality revolve around their self esteem and ability to stand up for their rights.  their sexuality revolve around their self esteem and ability to stand up for their rights.If they choose to have sex, they need to feel confident enough to talk about the AIDS risks with their partner.

  Abstinence is an equally valid choice, he said.

  The students also were invited to attend an assortment of workshops on topics including teen advocacy, homophobia and AIDS, and creative ways to engage in safe sex.

  In the workshop titled, "Homophobia and AIDS - The Deadly Link," Joseph Oppedisano, of the Danbury Gay, Lesbian and Bi-Sexual Youth Group, and Michelle Pincince, of the Western's Safe Zone Project, enlightened their audience about ways to combat this phenomena.

  Society has labeled people based on their sexual orientation, but labels do not get sick with AIDS. People do, Pincince said. Statistics show that AIDS is the leading cause of death of people aged 25 to 44.

  They told the audience that homosexuality and AIDS are separate issues, even though some people promote the idea that AIDS is revenge for a deviant lifestyle. The key to eliminating homophobia is education and understanding, they said.

  "I think it's weird how people are scared of something they hardly know anything about," said Immaculate sophomore Dawn Fitzgerald.

  She admits she has trouble understanding why someone is gay, but realizes that being gay does not mean someone should be discriminated against.

  "Gays are human beings just like us," said Joe Delgado, a freshman at Jonathan Law High School in Milford.

Myths & AIDS

* Mosquito bites, other bug bites
* Sharing toilets, telephones, clothes
* Hugging, touching or dry kissing a person with HIV
* Sharing cups, utensils
* Working with HIV-infected co-worker
Source: World AIDS Day 1994

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