Street Kids and AIDS

SARA ENGRAM

March 28, 1993|By SARA ENGRAM

There's something comforting about puppets. They're huma enough to strike a chord, but impersonal enough to make a universal point. Like the denizens of Sesame Street, puppets can tackle tough issues in tender ways.

Careca is a prime example. A rubbery-looking, tough-but-lovable character, Careca is one of the puppet stars of "Vida de Rua," a video for Brazilian street kids about the dangers of AIDS.

Produced by the Center for Communications Programs of the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, the video is aimed at an audience of 8- to 14-year-olds, kids for whom childhood is an obstacle course of survival on the streets. In their lives, AIDS is a new kind of threat -- one less visible and harder to fathom than the hostile authorities, hunger, inclement weather, bad drugs or other hazards that can make any day a miserable one.

The background scenes of "Vida de Rua" are specific to Belo Horizonte, the central Brazilian city where the video will be used to educate the large population of street kids who are at risk of contracting and spreading AIDS.

Much of the dialogue was taken from sessions with these same '' kids, and all of the judgment calls -- depiction of drug use, sexual activity, profane language, petty crimes, attitudes toward police or other authorities -- were hashed out in extensive consultations with a network of community groups, many of which will be using the video in working with street kids. Even the plot was a group effort.

But the characters and their story have a universal quality as well. With only slight variations, Careca and his pals could have ,, come from virtually any of the cities in Brazil where hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of children -- part castaways, part runaways -- try to fend for themselves on the streets.

Careca denies his symptoms are serious -- the persistent cough, the weight loss, the lack of energy -- but it becomes obvious to his friends that he's losing his touch. Why, he's even slowed down so much he can't even grab a purse successfully. If he can't commit petty crimes like that, how can expect to earn his living? Street life isn't kind to sickly kids.

Street kids have been common in Brazil for so long that they have developed their own subculture, usually living in groups that mimic the family relationships they no longer have. The street-kid tragedy is not restricted to Brazil; many of the developing world's larger cities have similar populations of rootless kids living on their own.

Fortunately, Baltimore is not in that category, despite its problem with homelessness. But it too has young people (not as young as Careca, however) who know what it's like to be at risk every day from AIDS or some swifter threat to life and health.

One hometown off-shoot of the video project is an effort to explore whether some of the same techniques being developed in Brazil to teach street kids how to protect themselves from AIDS may be applicable to the much smaller population of teen-agers who fend for themselves in Baltimore and whose survival needs -- selling sex or drugs, for instance -- put them at high risk.

Ross Polege, executive director of the Fellowship of Lights, an emergency shelter and support service for runaway and homeless youth in the city, has worked with this population since So far, he hasn't seen a big escalation in the numbers of these youth in Baltimore; neither is he seeing a shift toward younger children, as in developing countries where pressures on families are more intense and destabilizing. The fellowship's nine-bed shelter on Calvert Street seems to hold a steady average of six or seven occupants a night.

Less encouraging is a dramatic shift Mr. Polege detects in the resilience of families. When outreach workers try to help runaway kids, they often try to engineer a reconciliation with some member of the extended family.

Increasingly, however, Mr. Polege finds that these extended family resources are disappearing. Families are losing contact with their relatives, which leaves them isolated in a time of crisis and deprives adolescents of a potentially valuable resource during a volatile period in their lives.

We can be thankful that this country has largely escaped the kind of tragedies so evident on streets in Brazil -- a phenomenon almost guaranteed to ensure that AIDS flourishes and spreads through vulnerable parts of the population.

But for teens who do find themselves on the streets, let's have services in place -- food, shelter, counseling and, especially, health care and health education -- that help to minimize their risks.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director for The Evening Sun.

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