Vail Daily column: Positive prevention
In the early ’90s the world gasped when Magic Johnson announced he was HIV positive. At that time, this diagnosis meant a death sentence. It was an unfathomable and heart-wrenching diagnosis. AIDS organizations were sprouting up nationwide to help deal with the impending epidemic but it wasn’t until 1996 that Eagle County stepped in. Prior, there wasn’t any conversation, prevention, education or community support.
In April 1996 a small group of locals, led by two East Coast recent-college graduates, met at the Avon Public Library to discuss forming an HIV and AIDS support group. By August, the Red Ribbon Project was born, with the mission to provide awareness, education and support around HIV and AIDS. I’ve been honored to be part of this organization since its inception.
Although we felt the mission was clear, the organization has taken on many different aspects of education and prevention over the years. We have evolved based on community needs, providing programs that are culturally and age-appropriate for youth. In the beginning, this 100 percent volunteer organization set out to educate and create awareness about HIV/AIDS. Early on, we were able positively impact a family who had a child who was born HIV positive. I think that affected all of us and we recommitted to the need for an organization like ours. We stayed true to our mission while being flexible enough to provide the support that our community needed.
In 2000, Red Ribbon Project incorporated “prevention” into our mission as we started offering free HIV testing as part of the National Free Testing Day. In just one day, more than 200 people were tested for HIV. Proportionally, this was a significant number. Word got out — just as we hoped it would — and many more people were tested that year. Several free testing days now take place each year, testing approximately 150 community members annually. Rapid results are tantamount — we are able to provide state-of-the-art, barrier-free rapid testing with results in 10 minutes. Since 2000, there have been three HIV positive diagnoses through this program.
Prevention is the best education. Red Ribbon Project began providing free programs to youth on HIV and teen pregnancy prevention, with a clear emphasis on positive youth development. We continue to expand our educational offerings with a variety of programming. Starting in 1998, we presented an HIV 101 class to middle and high schoolers in English and Spanish. HIV knows no boundaries and we strive to focus on the whole child — kids who have a strong support system aren’t as likely to engage in risky behaviors. By 2002-03, more than 200 Latino students received HIV education. Come 2007, that number grew more than tenfold. The program now continues as our Youth Skills Building program and has come to address all risk behaviors adolescents face. Along with our partners, Eagle River Youth Coalition, Eagle County Public Health, the Eagle County Sheriff’s Department, we now reach over 3,000 students each year. Classes are age appropriate and build from year to year, giving children a safe place to ask questions, learn and develop.
Participate in The Longevity Project
The Longevity Project is an annual campaign to help educate readers about what it takes to live a long, fulfilling life in our valley. This year Kevin shares his story of hope and celebration of life with his presentation Cracked, Not Broken as we explore the critical and relevant topic of mental health.
A program we are most proud of implementing in health classes began in 2011. The Cuidate “Take Care of Yourself” program has proven to reduce teen pregnancy nationally. Teen births have been reduced by half during the past six years in Eagle County. In 2008, there were 67 teen births in Eagle County. In 2014, there were just 29 teen births in Eagle County.
Red Ribbon Project continues to be an agile organization, expanding our mission but staying true to our roots. We work closely with community partners to “promote healthier lives by empowering the community to reduce teen pregnancy, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.” Ultimately, it is my hope that Eagle County will someday recognize sexual health as a holistic, integrated aspect of overall health, and that there will be no stigma and shame around youth sexuality and sexual decision making.
Paula Palmateer is a founding board member of the Red Ribbon Project, which is celebrating 20 years this year. For more information, visit http://www.RedRibbon Project.org.
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