There was a time when young people were pounded with information about HIV/AIDS at school, on television, at home and nearly everywhere else they turned. About 20 years ago, you couldn’t escape it. But warnings about AIDS have faded in recent years.
A sobering result is that young people – particularly young people of color – are contracting AIDS at disturbing rates. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were more than 60,000 young people between 13 and 24 living with HIV in the United States in 2010. Of this group, young African American and Latino males accounted for the highest numbers of new HIV cases in 2010. That same year, youths between 13 and 24 made up 26 percent of new HIV cases in the U.S.
“I have friends who know absolutely nothing about AIDS,” said Manuel Trevino, a 19-year-old senior poised to graduate from American Legion High School in Oak Park. “You’re hanging out with them and you hear them talking about what they are going to do and you think, ‘If you knew what could happen, you wouldn’t be so proud.’”
In recent weeks, Trevino and his classmates were asked about the disease by an AIDS awareness advocate. The question was: How many of them knew someone who had HIV or AIDS or someone who had died from the disease?
Trevino and every other kid sitting next to him that day – about 20 other classmates in all – raised their hands.
“I had a friend who died of AIDS,” Trevino said. “She was 14. She was the nicest girl in the world.”
American Legion High is a continuation school. It’s where kids who have fallen far behind in their studies go to try and right themselves academically. The ethnic makeup of the student body – large numbers of African American and Latino students – combined with an Oak Park ZIP code makes American Legion a place where AIDS awareness is critical.
Sitting alongside Trevino are kids who have not had the benefit of enough health education. There are low rates of testing for sexually transmitted diseases and – based on anecdotal evidence overheard by students like Trevino – there are also low rates of condom use. By definition, kids at American Legion have ended up where they are by becoming detached from a broader community.
Trevino is back on track academically and will graduate within weeks, and he’s concluding his high school years by taking a bolder step toward fully participating in his community. Trevino and a handful of classmates will ride more than 300 miles next month to raise money for AIDS awareness. Now in its 11th year, the NorCal AIDS Cycle runs from May 14 to 17, starting at Folsom Lake and ending at the state Capitol after winding through Gridley, Williams and Woodland.
It’s a grueling run. Trevino hopes to put in about 200 miles in training, along with keeping with up his studies. Lately, his body and mind ache simultaneously. He groaned like a much older man as he sat at his high school desk Monday.
“Until you get into this, you have no idea what you’re in for,” he said “I thought just my thighs would hurt. But my arms hurt, my back, everything.”
So why do it?
“Because I knew it would be challenging,” he said. He said he feels compelled to help reignite awareness about AIDS among his peer group. He’s also found that others are happy to help him. Sacramento City Councilman Jay Schenirer, a veteran of the NorCal AIDS Cycle, was moved by Trevino and other American Legion kids and will host a fundraiser in their honor Monday. The proceeds will go toward HIV/AIDS providers in the Sacramento region.
“When I lost my friend to AIDS, it was a big eye-opener,” Trevino said. “When it happened, I didn’t know much about AIDS. I didn’t want to know.”
By putting his own body on the line, Trevino is embracing knowledge over dangerous ignorance. He’s saving himself from being a statistic and, he hopes, saving someone else too.
(The fundraiser for Trevino and his classmates will be from held Monday from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the Oak Park Brewery, 3514 Broadway.)
Call The Bee’s Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096.