By Jillian Ogawa
Daily News Writer
Friday, May 27th 2005

JACKIE LABANCA’S father died just a few weeks after she was born, and through the early years of her life, she believed his life had been taken by cancer. It wasn’t until she was 9 that she learned the truth – Anthony LaBanca had died, at age 40, of an HIV infection.

Jackie LaBanca, 17, shared her story this week at the Teen to Teen HIV/AIDS conference held at Queens College in Flushing.

“That was the lie everyone followed,” LaBanca told her teen audience. “Families lived in shame and shunned the one who contracted this virus.”

But even after she learned the truth about her father’s death, she remained confused. She thought HIV was hereditary because other family members were also infected.

“But as much as I wish this didn’t happen to me,” she said, referring to her father’s death, “it is my fuel, my inspiration to . . . say that there is a cure. It’s education. So let’s stop shunning the afflicted, and let’s stop living in shame.”

She was among the 30 students from Benjamin Cardozo High School in Bayside who hosted the conference, which was attended by students from 25 other Queens high schools.

The students taught six workshops, which included discussions on gender roles, the impact of HIV/AIDS in the world and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.

The conference is run through a Peer Leadership class taught by Hal Eisenberg, a certified social worker at Cardozo. But it is the students who organize and plan all the workshops, Eisenberg said. “There is a lot of strength with a peer talking to their own peer,” he said.

That’s how Kent Cummings, 23, also sees it. He is part of a 14-member group called Nite-Star, a nonprofit theater company at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital.

The group performed a skit, “Reality Show,” which focuses on real-life issues: one character becomes pregnant, two are infected with HIV, another couple contracts chlamydia, and the other struggles with telling friends about his sexuality.

“It’s informational, without bias, without pressure,” said Cummings. “This is how life is, and how you’ll be effected.”

It’s that perspective – the bigger picture – that motivated Cardozo student Dominique Smith Mayers, 17, to help with the conference.

When she was 12, her mother died of tuberculosis after the AIDS virus weakened her immune system. Being involved with the conference helps her cope.

“I still live on because I can reach out to people,” Mayers said.

Original Source