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 World AIDS Day conference informs local students

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Photo by Jennifer Vazquez
A group of juniors from Rutherford High School attend the World AIDS Day event in Tenafly Wednesday, Dec. 1. Pictured are Allegra Creste,16; Bobby Miskura,16; Brian Willis, 16; Max Gruttaduria, 17; Juliana Gallagher, 16; Julia Decker, 16; Rachael Wartel, 17; Joo Yung Choi, 16; and school nurse Judy De Pasquale.

By Jennifer Vazquez / Reporter

TENAFLY (Dec. 10, 2010) — People both locally and throughout the nation took part in World AIDS Day Wednesday, Dec. 1, a day set aside to raise awareness for the serious disease as well as offer tips to stop the spread of HIV. The AIDS Outreach Program at Hackensack University Medical Center also joined in by hosting a prevention-focused conference before an audience of hundreds of high school students from Bergen, Passaic, and Hudson counties. They were accompanied by teachers, school nurses and guidance counselors.

The conference, which took place at the Clinton Inn in Tenafly, featured a panel of experts in the medical field from HUMC, including Director of Clinical Virology Gary Munk, Assistant Attending of Division of Infectious Diseases Rani Sebti and Samit Desai, Section Chief of Division of Infectious Diseases Julie Piwoz and Chief of Division of Infectious Diseases Steven Sperber.

The theme of this year’s World AIDS Day was “Universal Access and Human Rights.” It focused not only on preventative methods, but continuing care and support systems for those with the disease.

The panel included Trevor Elam who shared his life story and how he contracted and subsequently how he is living with HIV — the virus that could lead to the development of AIDS if not controlled and treated.

A good student while growing up in Lodi, Elam started hanging around with the wrong crowd, going to clubs when he was 15 and doing a lot of drugs. After becoming a model, his drug use only continued as he began engaging in promiscuous activities, as he told the crowd. His mother urged him to get tested, seeing as he hadn’t been checked in months. He did.

“I went to the family doctor,” he said. “Got the test. About a week and a half later, I was called back and I was told the test was positive.”

Wanting to make sure the test results weren’t what is known as a “false-positive,” he submitted to a test again. Once more, it came back positive. “I was shocked but I wasn’t surprised knowing the lifestyle that I was living,” he said.

Taking responsibility for his actions and the consequences that materialized because of them, Elam is now dealing with the reality of HIV on a daily basis.

“I have been living with HIV since 2002,” Elam said. “I’m taking my medication as I should be taking them. I’m healthy and happy. I don’t think of me as having it, but I know I do. … There is nothing that I can do to change it. … I can either be completely miserable and bitter and blame the world around me or I can persevere and move on and grow from my past experience.”

Among the many students present at the conference was a group from Rutherford High School that is part of the club ERASE (End Racism and Sexism Everywhere) — along with their school nurse who oversees the club, Judy De Pasquale.

De Pasquale spoke to The Leader about the importance of having these young adolescents attend such events.

“(The club has) been coming to this conference for years,” De Pasquale said. “These events are very important. They allow the students to get all the facts about AIDS and HIV and realize that anyone can get infected if they aren’t careful and not just a certain type of person. I bring the club that I oversee to these events because they are school leaders in their own right. They’ll go on and talk to other students about what they’ve learned here and hopefully inform them with the correct information.”

At an age when they are coming to terms with who they are identity wise and sexually, as well as hearing confusing and at times conflicting information about AIDS/HIV, “it is important that they understand everything that the world has — both the good and the bad” and conferences such as these provide the most up-to-date and accurate information, according to De Pasquale.

The conference not only featured medical information and a personal account of living with HIV, but also incorporated skits presented by Tenafly students, a Q&A session and activities that all students took part in.

“I learned a lot about AIDS prevention,” Rutherford High School junior Brian Willis said. “I also learned all the symptoms of the disease and that people with (HIV/AIDS) can still lead a pretty normal life if they take all their medications. I learned how it’s important to be responsible with your actions.”

Rutherford High School junior Allegra Creste also had similar sentiments about the conference, saying Elamn’s personal account was her favorite part.

“Trevor’s story, the personal story, was probably my favorite part because it gives a face to the disease,” she said. “You learn what he went through and goes through and how, like he said, ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover,’ because you never know who might have it.”

Continuing to talk and answer questions to students during the small breaks at the conference, Elam wanted those in attendance to walk away with a heartfelt message.

“The message I want to show the kids (would be), ‘You are the future of this country … whoever you choose as a partner, know their history, and use protection. Don’t put yourself in harm’s way. Don’t make the same mistake I made.’ ”

The AIDS Outreach Program at HUMC developed into an annual education program in 1998 for adolescents in Bergen, Passaic, and Hudson counties, to educate and inform them about the realities of the disease as well as proposing the goal of eliminating this disease in their lifetime.

The HUMC AIDS Outreach Program was designed with those who have contracted HIV and AIDS in mind. They provide help, as well as psychological support, to not only those patients but their loved ones as well.

The program also helps patients access entitlements, provides education regarding HIV and AIDS prevention and treatment as well as counseling for emotional and psychological issues that may arise when a person is first diagnosed.

If you would like more information or confidential assistance, the HIV/AIDS coordinator for the HUMC AIDS Outreach Program can be contacted by calling 201-996-3577 or 201-996-2693.


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