In early October, Keith “Kiki” Bell, a junior at Berkeley High School, found out that two of his friends are HIV positive. The news was devastating.
But now, through the Berkeley High School Peer Health Education Program, Bell is working to prevent the further spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, among young people.
“I wanted to get out there and inform other teens so they wouldn’t get HIV,” Bell said.
Bell is one of a diverse group of 15 students who participate in the peer education program, also known as Teens Advocating Safer Sex.
The students, or peer educators, split their time among three primary activities – making presentations at BHS and local middle and alternative schools, passing out condoms and safer sex information on the street to young people and organizing special events.
Today, the group will sponsor an HIV assembly at BHS, and Thursday, the students will run an AIDS poetry slam at the high school, from 7 to 9:30 p.m. in room G210. The reading is open to the public, and a $2 donation is recommended.
This week’s events are in anticipation of World AIDS Day on Saturday, Dec. 1 – a global, annual event, dating back to 1988, which memorializes AIDS victims and stirs up activism surrounding HIV issues.
Sonya Dublin, who works out of the BHS Health Center as the coordinator of HIV Prevention Services, says the peer-to-peer program is effective because kids are the primary messengers.
“Where do teens get 90 percent of their values and information? From each other,” she said. “The more we can plant the seeds of accurate information and teach them good clear values and skills, the better.”
Mayor Shirley Dean said it is this emphasis on peer outreach that has built support for the program in the local halls of government. “Young people really do listen to young people, and that’s why it’s effective,” she said.
The program functions, primarily, on a $25,000 annual grant by the city, supplemented by grant money that raises the yearly budget to somewhere between $30,000 and $50,000. This money funds Dublin’s salary, the stipends of four part-time staffers and the 15 peer educators.
Both Dean and City Councilmember Kriss Worthington said they hope the program will survive the looming recession.
“There’s going to be a lot of pressure on the state, federal and city budget,” Worthington said. “I think it’s going to take a lot of work to keep these kinds of inventive, frontline services. But, they are what makes Berkeley special.”
On Tuesday, the frontline was in a ninth grade identity and ethnic studies class, where Dublin teamed up with peer trainer Talia Reich, 15, to educate a small class on safer sex.
Dublin and Reich began with a game, which called on students to examine their stereotypes of HIV. The educators asked the ninth graders whether they would choose to have unprotected sex with a homeless teenager, a homecoming king or queen, a drug dealer, an athlete, a “player,” an honor student, or a friend.
At the end of the exercise, they told the story of each of the seven figures, emphasizing that anyone can have a sexually transmitted disease, and that most teens do not bother getting tested.
Donald Ross, 14, a student in the class, was affected. “You can really get it,” he said of HIV. “If you’re going to be with a partner, you should know their background and they should know yours.”
The class concluded with a step-by-step demonstration for making proper use of a condom, performed on a plastic penis.
After the bell sounded, Reich, who has friends with HIV, told a reporter that she felt a responsibility to educate the public about AIDS. But she also expressed enthusiasm about what she has taken from the program.
“I get experience, I’m meeting people, and I’m doing something productive with my time,” she said. “I don’t play on a sports team, I don’t belong to a club, but I feel like I’m devoted to this...I’ve made some really good friends here.”
Later in the day, Keith Bell and Lauren Ross, 15, a sophomore at BHS, headed for Shattuck Avenue at lunchtime where they passed out packets with condoms, lubricant and safer sex information.
“There’s an epidemic going on and it’s awful,” said Ross. “I just want to make things better. People don’t need to die because of one mistake.”
For more information call the BHS Health Center at 644-6838 ex. 4.