By Alex Ginsberg
High school students from around the borough discussed HIV- and AIDS-related issues and heard the real-life stories of two HIV-positive activists Friday at a student-coordinated conference at Queensborough Community College.
The second annual Teens to Teens HIV/AIDS Awareness Conference was orchestrated by about 50 students from the Spark programs at John Bowne and Benjamin Cardozo high schools. The Spark program provides peer counseling and other support services for high school students facing problems such as drug addiction or sexually transmitted diseases.
“They did it all,” said Christine Gerstner, Spark coordinator at Bowne. “From A to Z.”
The Spark students worked since September, meeting once each week during the school day, to set up the day’s events, which included six small-group workshops focusing on issues such as date rape, transmission of HIV/AIDS, contraception, sexual orientation, teenagers’ rights and at-risk behaviors. One workshop, entitled “AIDS 411” was a pun on Friday’s date, April 11.
Conference attendees packed the student union auditorium following the workshops, as Candace Graves and Scott Fried, speakers from the organization Love Heals, shared their personal stories of living with HIV.
“When you need to talk about your stuff with someone, please, find someone,” Fried told the audience. He described his own adolescent and young adult years, a confused and troubled period during which he turned to promiscuity to bolster his sagging confidence. He urged the students in the room not to make the same mistakes.
“It’s OK to be a contradiction,” he told them. “It’s OK to be confused. You don’t have to have all the answers.”
When he revealed that he takes more than 100 pills each day to fight the HIV virus, an awed silence fell over the crowd, and when he finished, they rose in a standing ovation.
“They were real people,” said 16-year-old Jodie Wright, a sophomore at Townsend Harris High School in Flushing, as she choked back tears. “They dealt with it, and they’re dealing with it. It’s great that they can come and share with us and help us to prevent it.”
All high schools in Queens were given the opportunity to attend the conference, Cardozo’s Spark coordinator Hal Eisenberg said, but due to space limitations, only 15 could be accommodated. Five were turned away.
The program was funded through two $500 grants obtained through the Fund for the City of New York.
Gerstner said all her students collaborated on writing the grant proposal, with one student, 12th-grader Tanya Lonie, coordinating their efforts. At Cardozo, Eisenberg was quick to credit Parita Patel, a 12th-grader who not only wrote the grant proposal but also helped develop the idea for the conference.
“At first I thought she was a teacher,” Eisenberg said of Patel, who speaks with maturity and intelligence that belies her years.
Patel said she hoped to remain involved in planning subsequent conferences, although she would no longer be a high school student.
“In the future, we want to break away from a school-based program and do it on our own,” she said. That change would give the organizers more freedom in terms of content, guest speakers and activities, she said.
Both Gerstner and Eisenberg said they were astounded at the dedication and drive all the students brought to the project.
“We’re extremely satisfied,” Eisenberg said. “Christine and I always tell the students that we’re extremely proud of them.”
Reach reporter Alex Ginsberg by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.