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AIDS Awareness Week Teaches Safety

Life-saving messages of exercising good judgment, open communication and responsible behavior during intimate relationships were clearly stressed to freshmen at Massapequa High School-Ames Campus at one of two assemblies led by speakers from Love Heals, the Alison Gertz Foundation for AIDS Education.

Aiming to reinforce valuable lessons to keep students safe, the assembly was one of several state-mandated, age-appropriate lessons conducted during the district’s AIDS Awareness Week, which is held in close proximity to World AIDS Day, Dec. 1.

The speakers — one whose diagnosis spiraled him into years of destructive behavior involving drugs and alcohol, and the other whose meticulous practices about getting tested regularly could not save him from a drunken encounter that changed his life forever — opened up the eyes of their adolescent audience about the harsh  reality of living with a disease that has no cure.

Both speakers are now living relatively healthy lives thanks to advances in medication. However, they said that consuming all that medication comes at a hefty price.

“I suffered severe allergic reactions to powerful drugs ... the virus also develops resistance to the drugs so you have to keep changing regimens. I’ve experienced near death twice,” one speaker informed.

Stressing the need for students to take responsibility for themselves, they pointed to the longevity of the virus, now in its fourth decade, and the more than 70 million people that have been impacted.

“There is no cure ... this stays with you for the rest of your life,” they warned.  

Love Heals provides comprehensive AIDS education to empower young people to make informed choices and foster a new generation of community educators and activists in New York City committed to the fight against AIDS. The story of Alizon Gertz, the foundation’s namesake, should hit home with the young students. Gertz was infected with HIV through a single sexual encounter when she was 16. She lot her battle with the disease in 1992.

Each year, a combination of skits, interactive lessons, guest speakers, videos and take-home lessons are presented to students in an effort to educate them about the dangers of risky behavior. At the middle and high school level, powerful lessons on how the disease is contracted and what students can do to protect themselves are presented by student peer educators in an engaging and interactive way, under the guidance of physical education/health certified teacher Michael La Bella. Students learn important information about how the disease spreads and are given resources, such as where to get tested.

On the elementary level, students in the lower grades are taught basic hygiene practices and those in the upper grades learn about how HIV/AIDS is a difficult disease to contract and how to be compassionate to those infected. The lessons are reinforced with a take-home activity to facilitate discussions in the home. To spread awareness among the community, a public viewing of panels from the World AIDS quilt was hosted at Massapequa High School on Dec. 5. Peer educators are on hand to answer questions for visitors.

Three quilt panels were provided by the Names Project Foundation, the custodian of the 54-ton handmade tapestry that consists of more than 48,000 panels dedicated to more than 94,000 individuals.