By Sophia Chang
Encountering a sea of blank stares, the Cardozo High School senior said matter of factly, “It stands for human immunodeficiency virus. Does anyone know what AIDS stands for?”
Eschewing staid textbook approaches for frank workshops peppered with street slang and reality show parodies, Lemma and other students from Cardozo and Bowne high schools presented Friday at Queensborough Community College a conference on HIV/AIDS geared toward high schoolers.
The third annual Teens to Teens HIV/AIDS Awareness Conference had an estimated 300 to 500 students from Martin Van Buren, Hillcrest, Jamaica, Edison, Townsend Harris and Francis Lewis high schools participating in the all-day informational event. Funding for the conference was provided by the two host schools, Region 3 Youth Development and two organizations dedicated to empowering teenagers to lead and educate their peers, Youth Service America and Living Beyond Belief.
The conference kicked off with a raunchy and raucous performance by NiteStar, a youth performance group associated with St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan. The group performed a reality-show skit filled with dance and songs that addressed many teenage issues, including homosexuality, pregnancy, statutory age limits and sexually transmitted diseases.
The students in the audience seemed absorbed in the show, often groaning and hooting at jokes or offering comments whenever a character revealed a problem or confessed a secret. When one character commented that she would not get diseases if she didn’t do anything, a girl in the audience said loudly, “She right” and nodded in affirmation.
After the performance, the NiteStar actors and actresses remained in character during a question-and-answer session that allowed the audience to ask about their situations and discuss how they would have handled things differently.
Lemma, the overall Cardozo student coordinator, and her Bowne counterpart, Wilmer Diaz, along with 60 other student coordinators received formal peer leadership training classes that taught them not only about HIV and AIDS but also gave them strategies to effectively communicate that information to a population that can be simultaneously street smart and clueless: high schoolers.
Lemma, who has helped with the conference for three years, said she became interested in learning about HIV/AIDS when she found out that the mother of one of her friends had died of the disease.
“It was unbelievable that somebody in my world would have died from it,” she said. “It inspired me to do AIDS work and speak out, because teenagers have no idea what they’re getting into when they start having sex.”
This year, as she has for the past two years, Lemma taught a “Safe(r) Sex” workshop with fellow Cardozo students Catherine Dobkowski, Michael Persico and Jonathan Ruiz. Though the workshop emphasized abstinence as the only sure way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases, the student teachers also discussed effective use of contraceptives.
Parita Patel, now an accounting freshman at Bentley College in Massachusetts, began the HIV/AIDS conference when Hal Eisenberg, a Cardozo youth development coordinator, approached her with the idea. She visited this year’s conference with an approving creator’s eye.
“The students love it. The energy they have and the overall passion is amazing,” she said. “I definitely think we’re affecting some people.”
The conference’s popularity is growing, according to Eisenberg. “We had other schools in other regions interested in attending, but just dealing with regional high schools our capacity filled up,” he said.
“The demand for this conference is such that we could have easily had 1,500 to 2,000 people if we had the financial resources and capacity to do it.”
Reach reporter Sophia Chang by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.