Avon students learn to make healthy choices
Avon, CO Colorado
AVON, Colorado ” Fifth period at Stone Creek Charter School in Avon, Colorado is coming to a close, and it’s seventh grader Laura Claydon’s turn to tell the class what she has learned in the past hour.
“I guess I learned what the word on the board means,” she said. “I can’t pronounce it, but today I learned what it means.”
The guest speaker for the class, Phyllis Anderson, stands against the white board that has the word ABSTINENCE scrawled across it in red, capital letters.
“And what does it mean?” Anderson asked in her animated voice, cupping her ear and leaning towards the class.
Twenty-six 7th and 8th graders replied in unison: “Don’t do it!”
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In the Youth Skills Building Program, put on by the Red Ribbon Project at 21 schools around Eagle County, “it” means more than just sexual activity. At the middle school level, entitled “Happy Abstinence, Healthy Sexuality,” Anderson focuses on rights and responsibilities to make healthy choices about our minds and bodies, including drugs, alcohol, smoking and even tattoos and piercings. As the program progresses, the curriculum delves into more details about STDs, HIV and AIDS awareness.
“Most of them are turning 12 and 13 and 14,” Anderson said of her middle school students. “They’re starting to change physically, emotionally and mentally, and they need someone to explain it to them.”
She said that she captures the student’s attention because she has a very different story to tell. She’s African-American, is from New York City, and has been HIV positive for 18 years.
Robin Santoro, a counselor at Eagle Valley Middle School, said that Anderson’s story has had a tremendous effect on her students.
“Her message was very empowering,” Santoro said. “She talked about how HIV can be a kind of hidden disease. I think it was very eye-opening for our kids because she talked about her own diagnosis and how she has made healthy choices since her diagnosis and it hasn’t developed into AIDS.
“I think they really developed a level of respect for her.”
Since Anderson discovered she was HIV positive, she has dedicated her time to being an HIV counselor and certified tester through the New York State Department of Health and the Center for Disease Control.
“This disease doesn’t discriminate,” she said. “If you put yourself at risk, you can get infected. It all goes back to choices and being held responsible and being accountable.”
On Tuesday at Stone Creek Charter School, Anderson told the students that sex should be so far off on their radar compared to the challenges and adventures that they face as middle school students.
“What’s your job right now?” she asked the students.
“School!” chorused the students.
“That’s right. You should be making strong, lasting relationships with your parents, your siblings, your friends, your classmates,” she said. “You are our next teachers, lawyers. Some of you will be in the Senate. We might even have the next president in here. Do you want to do anything to jeopardize that?”
Everyone answered no.
Anderson will travel to Colorado several times a year to help supplement the Red Ribbon Project’s awareness program. For the past 15 years she has used her vacation time from her two other jobs to help out Paula Palmateer, who has been involved with the Red Ribbon Project since its inception in 1996.
“There was no effort in Eagle County,” said Palmateer, who now is the director of the Red Ribbon Project. “Everyone needs it. Even though it’s not an epidemic up here, it still needs to be at the forefront of people’s minds, especially young people who are at risk.”
Anderson said that it is important to start the education process young, and has adapted the curiculum to work with students as young as third grade.
“We are aiming at with the whole child,” Palmateer said. “We teach self esteem, peer pressure, conflict resolution, and setting goals. That’s what’s going to make the difference when they come to tough decisions in their lives.”
Santoro agreed that young children need to be aware of the changes occurring in their minds and bodies.
“We want them to be aware and thinking ‘How does my decision affect my future?'” she said.
And many of Anderson’s students have remembered her long after they heard her speak. She said that she gets a thousand letters a year from students, telling her that they heard her message and chose to wait to have sex or think about their bodies and minds before they make decisions.
“They’re not thanking me,” she said. “They’re promising to make healthier choices.”
She said that she sees former students at the grocery store after they have graduated college and started families. Some of them hug her and some of them tell her, “When I was in college, I thought about what you said.”
“If they remember her,” Palmateer said. “Then they remember her message, and that’s what matters.”
1 in 4 Americans who are HIV positive don’t know. They only way to know for sure is to get tested.
Thursday, 1 p.m.-6p.m.
Edwards Medical Center-“EAGLE CARE CLINIC.”
Friday, 1 p.m.-7 p.m.
Vail Interfaith Chapel
No appointment necessary. Walk-ins welcome. Results available same-day. All testing is confidential. Test is an oral swab test; pre and post counseling provided.