- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 15, 2005

D.C. and Maryland youths learned the facts of life yesterday during a youth symposium to kick off the annual Martin Luther King birthday celebration at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington Eastern Branch in Southeast.

About 100 students and parents gathered in the building’s second-floor auditorium to learn about the importance of abstinence and the possible consequences of premarital sex, including sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and HIV/AIDS.

“So many of our young people are looking for love in all the wrong places,” said Sarah Kinard, 35, coordinator for the STD/AIDS Youth Symposium. “So we wanted to take this time, in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to provide them with food for thought. Dr. King left a legacy, and we want our children to be around to live his legacy … to lead productive lives and not become distracted by sex because it will cut short their lives and their dreams.”

An estimated 12 million new cases of STDs occur in the United States each year, approximately 3 million among teenagers, according to the D.C. government.

A 2003 report by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that females 15 to 19 years of age had the highest rates of gonorrhea compared with women in all other age categories.

The high prevalence of STDs among adolescents, the CDC says, reflects the many obstacles that confront teenagers — including lack of insurance or other ability to pay, lack of transportation, discomfort with facilities and services designed for adults, and concerns about confidentiality.

The daylong symposium — which included lunch from Whole Foods Market, a performance by the Briggs Chaney Middle School Drama Club of Silver Spring, and several guest speakers — was sponsored by the D.C. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Day Committee to honor the civil rights leader’s life and to teach students about his heroic efforts.

This year’s birthday celebration theme was “Living the Legacy: Building Bridges of Hope.”

In a short skit titled “Are We Living the Legacy?: Tribute to Dr. King,” Foluso Soniregun, 12, portrayed Rosa Parks, considered the mother of the civil rights movement, to demonstrate what life was like for blacks in the 1950s. Other young actors portrayed blacks and whites having separate accommodations and how blacks feared death by lynching. The skit closed with the actors vowing never to refer to one another in disparaging terms.

Carol Williams, a registered nurse who works at the Max Robinson Center in Southeast, focused on abstinence in her hourlong discussion on STDs and HIV/AIDS.

Ms. Williams, who is also the education director for the Greater Mount Calvary Church’s HIV/AIDS Ministry in Northeast, showed the students photographs of people with STDs.

“My key focus was abstinence,” said Ms. Williams, who lectures on the subject at area churches and organizations. “And the only way to not get STDs is to abstain. But I think the pictures shocked them, and I got their attention. I also told them that [an estimated] two young people die from HIV/AIDS every hour.”

Though she stresses abstinence, Ms. Williams said she is not naive and encouraged her audience, ages 7 to 18, to talk to their parents if they are thinking about having sex.

“Parents should be open with their children when discussing sex, STDs and the prevention of STDs,” she said. “And if their child is sexually active, get them tested and treated” if necessary.

She said the number of HIV/AIDS cases in the District is increasing owing to the lack of education.

Ms. Kinard also had a lively discussion with the students about the sexual messages in popular dance music — including Nelly’s “Flap Your Wings” and Ciara’s “Goodies.”

“I posed the question as to why society is bombarded by sex through music, fashion, television, videos and other products,” Ms. Kinard said. “It seemed as if the group realized that sex is everywhere.”

Jackie Fungchung, 13, said the symposium enlightened her, and she intends to make the right life choices.

“I learned a lot today that I didn’t know about,” said Jackie, a seventh-grader at Briggs Chaney Middle School. “I learned that I must be careful when making life choices. Abstinence is the best way not to endanger your life. And just because a person has HIV/AIDS, we should not demean them. They’re just like us. They could have been born with it or just made a mistake.”

Von Montegut, 16, a representative from Metro TeenAIDS in Southeast, yesterday dispelled some myths about HIV/AIDS.

“The number 1 thing to know about HIV is that there is no cure,” he said. “You have to be tested to know whether you are HIV-positive. HIV does not discriminate. … It means death if you don’t educate yourself or protect yourself. Knowledge is power.”

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