Bronx teens party with a purpose

Posted on 08. Dec, 2009 by in Uncategorized

by Erin McCarthy

In a quiet basement room in the South Bronx, 15 teenagers and four adults sit in a semi-circle with their shoes off.  Amid the white, purple-toed and mismatched socks, the high school students and their instructors talk about why they can’t wait to party.

It’s not just any party, but a “Red Party” where Bronx teenagers can dance, listen to poetry and music, watch a student-made documentary film and, the real reason for the affair, get tested for HIV.

“I think this party’s important for the Bronx because if you look at the numbers, the statistics, the numbers are outrageous. It’s sad,” said Jesica Blandon, 16.

What’s outrageous, Blandon said, are the number of HIV cases in the Bronx. The borough made up 23% of all HIV diagnoses in New York City, the city’s most recent health department report indicated. Montefiore Medical Center’s Adolescent AIDS program will provide testing at the Nov. 21 party.

Blandon belongs to the A.C.T.I.O.N. Project, a program that teaches high school students to explore social issues through the arts. The students’ mission is to make AIDS awareness and even testing a fun experience, said Ama Codjoe, a teaching artist with the program. A.C.T.I.O.N. is one of several out-of-school programs developed by the DreamYard Project, an arts education nonprofit in the Morrisania section of the Bronx.

The party-planning began in August, a few months after the participants chose HIV and AIDS as the issue for their project. They were shocked to hear how AIDS affects African Americans and Latinos. Eighty percent of the city’s HIV cases come from these two ethnic groups. The students then researched and learned how people were both infected and affected by HIV, said Robyne Walker Murphy, director of DreamYard’s out-of-school programs.

The young artists also met and interviewed young, HIV-positive New Yorkers from three local organizations: Gay Men of African Descent, LOTUS (Ladies Opposed to Unsafe Sex) and Project H.E.A.T. Participants composed poetry and theater pieces based on their experience. “It was very amazing to me,” Blandon said. “It definitely shattered many of the stereotypes you have of people infected with HIV and AIDS.”

A.C.T.I.O.N. also traveled to Washington, D.C., in July, where the students performed their theater scenes and poetry about the AIDS issue. Student-filmmakers captured it all for a documentary.

Back at DreamYard’s center for their first meeting since summer, some teens worried their friends would be afraid to get tested and find out they were HIV-positive. Overcome those fears with persistence, Blandon said: “There’s no other way to say it: you gotta get tested.”

Toward the end of the session, the teaching artists and students added up the potential guest list for the Red Party: 175 projected guests. Blandon had a more personal goal: “I just wanna have a voice and let people know that they have a voice and they need to use it.”

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