Having worked tirelessly for weeks, Ericka Dennis is on stage for only a moment to welcome guests to a dance contest aimed at attracting young people to get tested for HIV at Center for Aids Research and Education in midtown. An emcee dressed in drag introduces dance teams that energize the audience. Meanwhile, the mission of testing 1,000 youths within a year is being carried out by a team of youth peer educators led by Dennis, the youth program coordinator.
Dennis began fundraising for CARES when she was a sophomore in high school, which inspired her to later pursue a career in public health. "The numbers are rising," Dennis said about the infection rate in youths. "There's a lack of information and a lack of access." She faces the problem boldly. "There's so many types of ways to stop it, and the youth is the key."
As a teenager Dennis was at home sick one day when she discovered that World Aids Day was upcoming. As a member of student government she proposed that her school do a fundraiser for it. The student president declined but she saw that as a challenge. She decided to host a "fun run," a mapped out run around the school where students were sponsored. Through lunch money, nickels and dimes, she raised $900 during the three years she coordinated the event. "I barely knew how to pronounce it," Dennis said about the disease. "I had no personal connection. It was something I felt was right."
CARES accepted her donations and attended her fun runs to support her efforts.
Dennis remembers that she only had one health education class in high school and it did not educate her well. On her own she researched the subject of HIV and AIDS. By her senior year she was well-versed on the subject, had changed her behaviors and got tested as needed.
As Youth Program Coordinator Dennis does outreach to area schools to speak on the topic of safe sex. The program seeks to test youth between the ages of 13 and 24, with special attention to youth who are African American, Hispanic or lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). The numbers of new infections in those populations are rising quickly, especially in youth, Dennis says. There are many roadblocks to youth in minority populations. "It's lack of knowledge, poverty, cultural background," she says. LGBT youth face special challenges as they attempt to navigate safe sex while still discovering their own sexual identity. Health education classes that focus on heterosexual relationships and pregnancy-prevention do not teach LGBT youth information specific to their needs. CARES presents a friendly face that encourages open discussion on whatever sexual health concerns that people face.
The CARES Youth Program, and this dance competition is funded by a grant from Kaiser Permanente Northern California Community Benefit Program. It included multiple dance groups competing for prizes, graffiti artists doing live art and had food from Drewski's Hot Rod Kitchen. "We meet them where they're at," Dennis says. She's worked hard to make the program more personal and believes that they are succeeding. "We want to break down those walls. We're making progress."
Do you know someone who dedicates themselves passionately to helping people in our community? Please email your suggestions for the I Care column to Autumn Payne at email@example.com.