Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addressed the State of Michigan after a plan to kidnap her and other Michigan government officials was thwarted by state and federal law enforcement agencies. She started by saying thank you to law enforcement and FBI agents who participated in stopping this [...]
A cutting edge, youth-oriented HIV/AIDS education and prevention program dropped two years ago because of funding cuts will return next week with a fresh, new look and approach. “And none too soon,” said Craig Covey, chief executive officer of the Midwest AIDS Prevention Project in Ferndale. “Since January 1, we’ve had five new HIV-positive individuals, first-time tested, all of them in their late teens and early 20s. It just pains me to no end that we have to give a positive result to a 19-year-old gay boy who has just come out.”
With grants from the AT&T Foundation of Michigan and the M.A.C. AIDS Fund, MAPP will once again reach out to teens and young adults where many of them now spend much of their time: on the internet.
“It was the first in the nation,” Covey said of the SexED4U program that was initially launched in November 2002. “We’re just thrilled that this project has been funded again.”
In its original incarnation, HIV counselors would join gay and bisexual men’s online chat rooms using the screen name “SexEd4U” and make themselves available to answer questions about HIV and STDs, and to direct people to online resources and local testing sites.
Its 2008 incarnation, however, includes an interactive Web site – http://www.TheHouseofPrevention.com. “We’ve taken it a step further now,” explained MAPP’s Program and Event Manager Robert D. Thomas, 24, who took charge of the project after joining the agency last October. “We have a site where people ages 18 to 40 can talk to us and ask these questions. It’s the hub of our internet outreach.”
Developing a Web-based approach to HIV/AIDS prevention and education is a logical extension of MAPP’s existing outreach programs, Covey believes. “We know that the internet is the primary way that many young people find dates and boyfriends – and tricks and sexual outlets. So this, we think, is a very good approach (to reaching them).”
Once users log on to the site – the colorfully animated home page will greet them with silhouetted young men dancing to house music – they’ll have access to a variety of information, from the Top Ten Frequently Asked Questions to links to various programs and agencies throughout the state. “But I think the discussion board is going to be the place to be,” Thomas predicted. “Everyone from the age of 14 on up all know about blogging, message boards and all that, so we integrated (it) so people young and old will be interested in the site.”
Users can log on 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A moderator will be present at various times every day during regular business hours, Thomas explained, posting copy, leading group discussions and responding to individuals on the message boards – “doing what we do as outreach workers. We want people who reach us via the Web site to get the same feel as if they were reaching us in person.”
Part of the site’s appeal, Thomas believes, is that users can remain anonymous while searching for information. Plus, it’s sometimes easier to ask the tough questions – and give honest answers – when you’re not face-to-face with a real, live person. “It’s an environment that you can control to some extent,” he said.
It will also be a safe, comfortable space for people of all races and backgrounds. “Offensive language will not be tolerated,” Thomas emphasized. “And it’s not designed to be a dating or sex site.”
If the recent half-dozen new infections are any indication, the need for new and innovative approaches to HIV/AIDS prevention and education has never been more urgent. “I think people are way too complacent on this issue,” Covey stated. “We have not done a good enough job educating our young people.”
Schools, in particular, have failed to reach young men at risk – especially African-American, Latino and gay youth, he continued. “We’ve always believed that the schools are the best place to start this education. But that doesn’t mean the lame abstinence-only programs that the federal government has been pushing under George Bush.”
What’s needed, Covey said, is HIV/AIDS education that is realistic and behavior-based. “And in the case of the highest risk group, which is still young men who have sex with men, it has to address same-sex sexual behavior. Not just condom demonstrations, but explaining why people put themselves at risk and under what circumstances. And what issues lead to risky behavior.”
Schools, though, are hesitant to talk about such issues. But even that is not enough. “The bars and clubs should be doing education, the bath houses should have condoms, posters and brochures available. Parents should be involved. And peers. We just have to start taking care of ourselves and stop living in the state of denial,” Covey said.
That’s why the SexED4U program and The House of Prevention are so important, Covey believes. “We really need to get everywhere young people go, but unfortunately, we’re not allowed to go into all the clubs. We think that’s a very sad and unwise decision. But this program will go right to where young people now get their information, and we’ll provide them with high-quality, interactive programming that anyone can access.”
Efforts to promote the new Web site to its target audience are already underway. “We’re going to continue our efforts on the online sites that already exist and advertise there,” Thomas said. Then we’ll also utilize out time when we’re out in the public. There will be palm cards and marketing material to pass out.”
But the major kick-off will be a launch party at club Nine in Ferndale beginning 9 p.m. Friday, May 2. “The whole feel of the party should be and will be reflective of the Web site. We’ll still mean business, but we want everyone to have a good time. We’ll have searchlights so people can find it, with a DJ, a small program and giveaways. It’s just a big party,” Thomas said.
But one with a very serious purpose.