Audacious tactics grab attention at health fair

`High-risk youth' learn about dangers of drugs, smoking, unprotected sex

May 26, 2002|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Lynda Niles, a Carroll County health educator, smiled as the students at the Thomas O'Farrell Youth Center did a double take at the T-shirt she wore for the Marriottsville school's health fair.

She had taped wrapped condoms around the shirt's safe-sex slogans - and she could tell from the youths' reaction that they got the message.

"Did you read her shirt?" 17-year-old S.P. asked as he gently jabbed a classmate. "It's funny and it's got a good message that says wear protection if you're gonna have sex."

The shirt would never fly in a county school, but it was a compelling reminder for the 48 O'Farrell students, many of whom are assigned to the center by the courts because of high-risk behavior.

"The shirt is just one way to break the ice with these kids. We try things to grab their attention," Kim J. Toliver, coordinator of special programs for the state AIDS Administration, said during the event Thursday.

Niles, who teaches a weekly class at O'Farrell, a residential treatment program for court-referred boys ages 13 to 18, helped organize the health fair. The event offered students information about sexually transmitted diseases, substance abuse, tobacco, and lead paint - all with a strong prevention theme.

"This is telling us to always wear protection; that drugs mess you up and even cigarettes are bad for you," said S.P., whose identity is protected by the state Department of Juvenile Services. The media is restricted to the use of initials and ages. "I knew a lot of this stuff, but this re-emphasizes it and it helps people who don't know."

The strongest message came from Thomas Burger, 44, who is living with AIDS and hepatitis after years of drug and alcohol abuse, prison and homelessness. Burger began drinking at 11; smoked marijuana on the playground in middle school; sniffed inhalants as a teen-ager; and quit high school during his senior year when drugs took over his life.

Before a hushed audience, Burger spoke candidly of the bad choices he made, telling the students, "You look like you think you're invincible, and that's what I thought when I was your age."

He spread a table with the copious and costly medications he takes daily to stay alive, and discussed the limitations imposed by the diseases that he said he brought on himself.

"I am living on borrowed time," Burger said. "I don't want to scare you, but maybe I can turn your lives around. I don't want any of you to end up like me. Alcoholics and drug addicts don't think and they make dumb decisions. I shared needles and had unprotected sex."

When Burger left the assembly, P.G., 17, shook his hand firmly and thanked him for sharing his story.

"Seeing the way he struggles really makes me think," said the youth.

Lisa Colin, O'Farrell's assistant program director, said many of the students probably had cut health classes in their home schools. During their time at O'Farrell - usually six to nine months - the center works to provide the youth with education, coping skills and a sense of self-esteem.

"They have misconceptions about what drugs and sex do to their minds and bodies, and what abuse does now and into the future," said Colin. "These events are good for them because most of them don't know all they pretend to know."

J.M.D., 17, said he did not realize there was a connection between AIDS and used tattoo needles. When he saw a jar filled with the amount of tar contained in a year's worth of cigarettes, he was determined to quit smoking.

"I am here for nine months," he said. "This is my best chance to stop smoking."

Carroll County is using money from a federal grant that targets high-risk women and youths - two groups in which alarming increases in the incidence AIDS have been noted - to fund a prevention campaign. Niles addresses youth groups throughout the county.

The program also offers free, confidential testing for human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS, at the Health Department in Westminster, but counselors provided the service to the O'Farrell students on site.

"These are high-risk youth, who usually have been involved in high-risk sexual behavior," said Mary Jo Goldenbaum, a county AIDS counselor. "Multiple partners is a kind of badge they wear, their way of demonstrating masculinity to their peers."

The students meandered among a series of booths staffed by trained counselors. They asked questions and took brochures. Finally, they confronted a panel from the AIDS memorial quilt - eight patches representing lives cut short by the epidemic.

"You can see they were all young and they probably all got the disease as teen-agers," Niles told the students.

Many students lingered at the quilt, reading the messages and commenting on the photos stitched into the cloth.

"It must have been really hard on their families," said J.B., 16.

R.T., 15, said, "There are a lot of memories here of things the people who died liked. I am glad we are learning how people catch AIDS and how to use a condom to protect ourselves."

Half of the 40,000 HIV infections diagnosed every year in the United States occur in people ages 13 through 19, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Half of all HIV infections are attributed to drug use, according to AIDS Action.

"What they are telling us is to be drug-free and not to have sex without a condom," said R.D., 15. "All this stuff makes kids stop and think."

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