From Cruelty to Kindness: How educating youth creates compassion

By Suzanne Cheavens

stig·ma, noun: a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.

It is no secret that kids can be cruel. And that cruelty can be ramped up when someone in their midst is HIV positive. The stigma surrounding the AIDS pandemic is profound. Globally, there are 5 million young people living with HIV. And with 41% of new HIV infections occurring among young people, every 30 seconds, another young person becomes HIV-positive. The vast majority of HIV-positive youth live in parts of the world where educational and health resources are lacking, and a stunning 64% of infected youth are women. In sub-Saharan Africa, that percentage rises to 71%.

According to the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, the needs of young people living with HIV or AIDS are “underestimated and largely unmet.” Countries with the highest numbers of young people living with HIV are also among the world’s neediest countries. Young people, globally, are underserved.

Worldwide, few young people ages have an accurate understanding of how HIV is transmitted. This means they are not only more vulnerable to the virus but also susceptible to believing myths about HIV and HIV-positive people.

According to Advocates for Youth, “stigma against people with HIV directly contributes to the epidemic where HIV-positive people or people at risk of HIV are reluctant or afraid to seek treatment and testing. Some young people report being afraid to get an HIV test because health care workers accuse them of being promiscuous.

Education is clearly a major tool in the fight against stigmatizing those living with HIV/AIDS. Here in Telluride, area youth are fortunate to have classes and presentations focusing on AIDS issues as part of their overall education, and committed and passionate educators who know that with the right tools, they can send compassionate, open-minded kids into the world.

Sandy McLaughlin serves on the Telluride AIDS Benefit Board of Directors as the liaison for educational programs for grades 7-12. Her dedication to local youth is legend. Since 1991, when former TAB executive director Amy Kimberly brought her on-board, she has played a key role in incorporating AIDS education in the Telluride schools.

“As a lifelong educator, I think it is critical for all adolescents to learn how to make healthy decisions,” Sandy said. “I want students to be educated with the correct information to make decisions, instead of assuming something is correct, or relying on rumor and speculation among friends.”

TAB provides a half-day of AIDS education every year to the 7-12 grade students at the Telluride school district. “The school always sends out advance notification about the educational program, so parents have the option to opt their child out of the programs,” McLaughlin explained. However, AIDS/HIV education is now required of the Colorado State Content Standards.

TAB beneficiary, WestCAP, sends their staffers into the classrooms every year for frank no-teacher, no-school staff, confidential sessions in which there are no dumb questions and lots of clear-eyed information. Another TAB beneficiary, Brother Jeff’s Community Health Initiative, led by the charismatic Denver native, Brother Jeff Fard, leads role-playing sessions where kids think on their feet and confront issues of stigmatization, prejudice and fear. Sandy sees tremendous value in these opportunities.

“Students learn what is myth and what is fact,” she said. “They learn how HIV is and is not transmitted. We try to take the fear away. Also, several of our students become ambassadors by going off to college and sharing their peer education training with others.”

The healthy attitude Telluride’s students possess also comes from the hard work and creativity many pour into the annual TAB Student Fashion Show. This year, the theme of the show selected by the student directors is “Breaking the Stigma of HIV & AIDS”. The cast will work together to create a video to precede their show with this theme. “The cast of students involved take their participation seriously,” Sandy remarked. “I think every student involved comes away from the experience with a better understanding of the pandemic of HIV/AIDS, and they become passionate about the cause. Many students have reported that being involved in the show has been one of the most rewarding experiences in high school for them.”

This year, AIDS Education Day will include a presentation from Paige Rawl, a college-aged young woman who was born with HIV. Rawl is now a leading speaker and advocate for anti-bullying policies in the country’s schools and who works tirelessly to reduce the stigma toward HIV/AIDS. “Through education and creating a positive and caring culture, all kids can thrive. That is what I live and breathe,“ says McLaughlin.