Words of warning, inspiration

Towson University event tied to World AIDS Day encourages awareness of disease

December 03, 2007|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,Sun reporter

A Towson University graduate who contracted the disease from a drug-abusing boyfriend who pressured her to have unprotected sex. A Parkville phone company employee who thought her relationship was monogamous. A University of Maryland horticulture student diagnosed with the disease just years after college.

All three of these victims of HIV/AIDS are Jewish Pikesville natives. One - College Park graduate Steven Kaufman - is dead. But his memory lives on through the organization his family founded after his death in 1990, and it was honored at a World AIDS Day event the group co-sponsored yesterday with the Towson University Athletic Department.

Kimberly Smolen, the Towson graduate living with the AIDS virus, served as the keynote speaker at the Steven Kaufman AIDS Outreach Project event, reminding students at the suburban campus that they are not immune to the disease.

"If you think it can't happen to you, please just look at me," Smolen, 42, told the crowd of about 100 people, most of them college students, gathered in the Towson University Union. "I gave myself away to others because I wanted love."

Between speakers, hopeful songs and elegies were performed by Positive Voices, a vocal group made up of three local HIV-positive men. They harmonized with Cantor Nancy Ginsburg of Har Sinai Congregation on some numbers, such as one with Hebrew and English lyrics, praying for healing of the body and soul.

"I liked that it wasn't just speakers," said Allyson Paul, 19, a Towson sophomore from Perry Hall. "That made it more unique, the ways the songs tied in after each speech."

Dec. 1 generally marks World AIDS Day, but the Steven Kaufman project, a program of Baltimore's Jewish Family Services, didn't want to conflict with Shabbat on Saturday.

With a theme of "Spreading the word, not the virus," yesterday's event explored both Jewish and more universal themes. Kaufman's parents, Buddy and Linda Kaufman, founded their organization because they couldn't find an AIDS support group within the Jewish community. The group celebrated its 15th anniversary.

"When my big brother died in 1990 at the age of 32, my parents didn't know where to go to talk about their grief," said Kaufman's sister Amy Harlan, welcoming everyone on behalf of the family foundation. "No one else should be infected with this disease because of lack of information."

Another speaker, Tema Gerhardt, felt judgment from her Orthodox Jewish family when her HIV-positive status was diagnosed in 1987. Gerhardt, 54, who had been seriously ill for a year, never suspected that she could have what was then considered a gay man's disease, she said.

"My mother's reply was if you were Jewish, you wouldn't get this," said Gerhardt, a Parkville resident. She said she thought she could trust her then-boyfriend, who was in law enforcement. But he turned out to have several sexual partners - both women and men - behind her back, Gerhardt said.

"I thought it was monogamous, but he infected five other women prior to me," she told the audience.

Positive Voices member Kevin Clemmons spoke more generally about faith - and an inspirational trip to Africa - providing the hope that helps him cope with the disease.

About a dozen men from the Gaudenzia residential drug treatment center in Park Heights attended the event, to remind the audience that injecting drugs with dirty needles is a common way to become infected with HIV. Andre Shaw, 45, and Durrell Chappell, 40, both recovering from heroin addiction, said the presentation hit home for them.

"Drug abusers are high-risk people," said Shaw, who said he was not HIV-positive.

Smolen herself told students she had struggled with drug addiction but has been clean for eight years. She turned to cocaine to cope with the disease, and even became homeless after graduating from Towson in 1996.

"That was part of my journey here," said Smolen. "I finally gave myself permission to want to live."

laura.mccandlish@baltsun.com

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