As T.J. Smith surveys her audience, she sees teenagers holding their toddlers’ hands, gang members flipping hand signals at each other and drug dealers leaning against the wall, hands shoved deep into their pockets.
This is not the Just-Say-No crowd.
But not one of them is HIV-positive, and it’s not just because the AIDS Council of Northeastern New York is handing out glow-in-the-dark condoms.
In fact, safe sex and abstinence are taking a back seat here, in the basement of a church in the heart of Hamilton Hill. Some of the neighborhood’s most reckless children — the ones most likely to get AIDS — are spending every Thursday learning about healthy relationships, communication, how to find a clean and trustworthy partner and how to get away from the others before they pass along whatever diseases they may have.
“It’s not just safe sex or no sex,” said Smith, prevention projects manager for the AIDS council. “It surprises them when we don’t talk about it. But the bottom line is if I don’t know how to say no, I can’t say no. So we work on self-esteem, communication, healthy relationships.”
The change in message came about as HIV cases rose in the United States.
“With all the information that’s out there and all the money going into abstinence and safe sex and comprehensive sex ed, we are still seeing an increase,” Smith said. “It’s time we came at it from another direction.”
She took the new program to Quest on Hamilton Hill, where director Judy Atchinson welcomes gang members, teens on probation and “the children that others turn away.”
Smith has to get her message across between booming rap songs while children race in every direction. It’s not easy to get the children to sit down, much less keep them in their chairs long enough to deliver a lecture.
So instead she plays games with them to teach them good judgment in relationships. The speeches they wouldn’t listen to are turned into rap songs and poems, which the children soak up eagerly. They applaud and cheer and shout back the best lines as if they were at a concert, not in a church basement.
Smith doesn’t mind the chaos and the noise that forces her to shout if she wants to be heard.
“We were so lucky to be able to come here,” she said. “The majority of the people getting HIV are between 15 and 24. It is the number one disease for African-American women between 25 and 34. So we want to reach these kids.”
On Thursday, her pupils celebrated their first year of AIDS education, offering their own raps, songs and poems.
Jamey Williams’ poem warned that even the prettiest girl could have the deadly disease.
“I may be in that dress that’s see-through,” he read.
His poem also said people used to think AIDS came from monkeys and homosexuals.
“Used to be I’m very rare . . . Now I come from junkies, drugs, vaginas and testicles,” he said. “But I’m low-key, drain your blood like a slow leak . . .”
Children cheered enthusiastically when he finished.
Timmel Knight, 18, got similar applause with his rap, in which he urged everyone to be ready just in case they decided to have sex.
“So always keep one in your pocket . . . or two or four or five,” he said. “Always use a condom.”
Smith tells them they can have condoms for free — “If we can’t talk you out of it, we have items to protect you” — and Atchinson offers latex in every flavor and color imaginable.
Some of the younger children still think AIDS awareness comes down to a simple choice: safe sex or no sex.
But the older women at Quest — the ones most likely to die of AIDS in the next decade — have absorbed the more nuanced lessons.
“Just basically communicate. You have to know how to communicate,” said Tasha Figueroa, 23. She said relationships often turn ugly when partners lie to each other about simple things. A fib about a game night with the guys could lead the girl to believe she’s being cheated on, destabilizing an otherwise good relationship as the girl tries to interrogate the boy or follow him around to learn the truth.
Shacreesha Ginyard, 25, added that Smith’s relationships game helped the students prepare for The Talk — the one in which each partner confesses his or her sexual past.
First, she said, the partners must be comfortable enough to talk the talk before taking the plunge. Then they have to back up their statements with cold, hard medical truth.
“I learned to talk with your partner more. Be honest, have conversations about condoms, then get tested together,” said Ginyard. “I’ve got to speak up — I won’t know anything unless I ask.”
Smith also tries to encourage abstinence, reminding the teenagers that half of all high school students don’t have sex.
That message might be getting through too.
Isaiah Teeling, 13, said he’d learned one important thing about AIDS.
“I shouldn’t be worrying about sex. I should be worrying about schoolwork,” he said.
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