Redefine Positive: Reforming HIV/AIDS Educational Resources in Public Schools

Today’s post is by my sister-in-law Jode Howerton. I am so proud of this initiative she is spear-heading to provide more appropriate education materials on HIV/AIDS, as a mama to a child who is HIV+. I hope you will read about her passion for improving HIV education..

Several years ago, when my oldest was in 5th grade, I previewed the HIV/AIDS video that our local public school uses to fulfill state educational mandates. The video was produced in the 1980’s (might have had an update in the early 90’s), was incredibly fear based, and contained very outdated information about the virus.

I was stunned. In most other ways, I’ve been very impressed with the curriculum our school district utilizes. The video featured newspaper headlines that read, “Thousands Die of AIDS” and even cut to a shot of the grim reaper at one point. To illustrate how HIV attacks the immune system, the video used abstract concepts related to baseball that even I, as an adult, was confused by. Then there was the personification of HIV as a red monster. The message was clear - be afraid, be very afraid.

My 8-year old son, Duzi, is HIV positive.

july 2013 202

He is not scary and he is not contagious. When I viewed this video for the first time, he was in first grade. He takes a regimen of anti-retroviral medication every day and has an undetectable viral load. He is not a threat to anyone.

The information in the video was scary. Those without additional information would be afraid of my son after watching it. Afraid of my adorable, smart son who plays soccer and baseball, does karate, and is a super talented hip-hop dancer.

The video perpetuated stigma.

When the video ended, my head was spinning, blood rushed to my face, and my hand shot up. Why, I demanded, was this video being shown at all? Wasn’t there something else produced in this century that we could show instead? The poor teacher showing the video was simply utilizing a resource that had been approved by our district; she didn't have any answers. Our family was quite likely the first to complain about the outdated video. I then complained to the principal and to the school nurse, who put me in contact with the Health Coordinator at the school district. The Health Coordinator was incredibly kind and helpful. She admitted that the video was outdated and together, we searched for replacement videos – for an entire year. We found nothing in the marketplace that was appropriate for the public school setting. And I really mean nothing. 

So, I decided to make some new videos. With the collaboration of the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction in Washington State, physicians from Seattle Children’s Hospital, and fundraising help from Seattle Children’s Hospital Foundation, I’m creating a series of four brand new video resources for 5th grade, 6th grade, middle school and high school students.

These videos will be available FREE OF CHARGE to any school district in the nation that wants them.

Utilizing a documentary format that features a “day in the life” of an HIV positive person, the videos will contain medically and scientifically accurate information and will focus on reducing the devastating social stigma still associated with the disease. Students will understand the truth about prevention and transmission, and will feel compassionate, not fearful.

Of course, given the nature of education budgets in states across our nation, there is not any funding available for these videos. We need to raise $150,000 to create all four videos. We’ve launched a fundraising campaign on Indiegogo to help us  create the first video. http://igg.me/at/redefinepositive/x/4556845

Redefine - Reforming HIV/AIDS Education from North 40 Productions on Vimeo.

Before you go to Indiegogo, I need you to know how much thought, discussion, and prayer went in to my family’s decision to disclose my son Duzi’s status so openly. Up until now, we have only disclosed his positive status on an individual basis. We have never believed that HIV is something to be ashamed of. We have never communicated to Duzi that he has something to hide or be embarrassed of. Never. We have so normalized HIV in our home, that we actually rarely discuss it any more. Every morning, Duzi takes his HIV meds, I take my thyroid meds, Caleb takes his acid reflux meds, and Alex takes her iron supplement. It’s no big deal.

We started to realize sometime in the middle of last school year that more people knew about Duzi’s HIV status than we thought. Unfortunately, even though HIV status is protected under federal privacy laws, moms at the bus stop, parents at athletic events, and well-meaning people in our church like to chat about such “secret” things. We realized that we were not in charge of the information people were communicating to one another about our son’s health. People that knew about Duzi’s status didn’t know that we knew that they knew and so were not coming to us directly to ask questions. We had no idea what myths were being perpetuated.

We’ve decided, with Duzi’s input, with my other kids’ input, with perspective from our community of positive families, and with counsel from friends who know us well, to disclose openly.

Secrets have much more power than truth. We desperately want Duzi to live free of the burden of secrecy and shame; I have no doubt that open disclosure will have some consequences. I have no doubt that we will encounter ignorance and prejudice But, at least we will know about it.

And, I’m prepared to fight for my son’s right to live in the light.

We have 30 days to raise money for our “Redefine Positive” campaign on Indiegogo. Would you consider contributing?

You can donate here. You can also connect with us on facebook or twitter.  You can read our official press release about the campaign here


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