- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 1, 2004

Staff writer Denise Barnes interviewed Emily Piccirillo, executive director of Pediatric AIDS/HIV Care Inc.

Question: How did Pediatric Care begin?

Answer: It started as a buddy program in the basement of the Church of the Epiphany in Northwest in 1987. Then, in the early ‘90s, a longtime resident of the District, Mercedes Arnold, who lost two sons to AIDS, made a town house in the Northwest neighborhood of Mount Vernon available for renovation and used in-kind contributions of material and labor from volunteers. The house became a legacy for her sons. The house was transformed into a fully functioning therapeutic and educational enrichment center for children and teens living with HIV and AIDS.

Q: Why do you believe this is an important service to provide to children?

A: Well, the incidence of children being born with HIV has declined dramatically with the advent of new medications. However, the spread of AIDS among young women in communities of color continues to rise disproportionately. The District has the highest incidence of AIDS of any city in the country. Therefore, there is a very large community of children living with the direct daily impact of this virus. We conservatively estimate there are 10,000 children in families living with HIV/AIDS who could potentially be orphaned by the time they graduate from high school. It’s important to note that often multiple generations are infected within any single family, which compounds the issue like no other disease today.

Q: Tell me about the programs the organization offers children and teenagers.

A: Our goal is to support and strengthen families so they can continue caring for their children despite the many changes and challenges they face. We provide the use of a safe, fun, homelike setting in which children and teens can do their homework and receive tutoring. They can work in our computer lab and do creative projects or they can play games and relax.

Our clients also benefit from individual and group art therapy and grief counseling with an emphasis on expressive and play techniques to help them process and better understand their experiences and losses. We also organize outings and special events throughout the year.

The vast majority of Americans, particularly those who are fortunate, have difficulty appreciating life as a disadvantaged, at-risk African-American youth living with poverty, crime and violence. These social and environmental factors leave them vulnerable to hunger, homelessness, gang involvement, substance abuse and teen pregnancy. The fear and devastation of losing your parent to AIDS can shatter your world. Our hope is to provide the support they need to handle the experience that comes with HIV/AIDS to help them reach their potential and find their own sense of purpose. Studies are beginning to show the children living with the stress of HIV/AIDS who do not receive services are much more vulnerable to at-risk behavior.

Q: What keeps these children and young adults going, considering what they deal with on a daily basis?

A: We’ve come to recognize the children need to develop resilience in order to face adversities and to know who they can turn to for the love and care they need. For some of the children who worked with our program, it has been the one constant in their lives through multiple transitions between homes, caregivers, schools and neighborhoods. Our program has allowed them to feel protected in the face of adversity.

For example, we worked with one little boy since 1998. He came to us when he was 7 years old, and he just turned 12. We have seen him through five different foster homes. He is finally being adopted by a loving mother in Baltimore, but his biological mother died of AIDS when he was 18 months old, and he never knew his father. The little boy is HIV-positive, but he is living successfully with the virus and he recently reached grade level in school.

Q: How does the organization assist children in coming up to speed academically?

A: Each child is assigned an individual tutor who helps them with their homework on site. We are in the process of building a mentor program with the hope of every child having a mentor to support them during the rest of the week. Each child is assigned to come one evening out of the week. We provide educational enrichment programs and have different guests talk about various subjects, including geography, science and sign language. We have a brand new, fully equipped computer lab that helps children and teens develop basic computer skills.

Children affected by HIV/AIDS have the same range of abilities as other children, but some do have cognitive deficits and learning disabilities. Then there are psychological factors that can interfere significantly with their academic performance. We try to identify children who need to be accessed for special-education services. We find others that need help with focus and concentration, as well as follow-through due to the distractions they live with.

Q: Tell me about the grief counseling you offer through the program.

A: Depending on the child’s relationship with the person who is actively dying or has died, their reactions are uniquely personal. It’s important for the therapist who is working with the child or conducting a group of children going through this grief process to respect and honor those differences. We provide individual and group grief counseling along with art therapy. Because of the complexity of thoughts and feelings that come with grief, art is especially conducive to expression and lends itself to self-exploration. We help the children create memory journals to write the narrative in their own words and on their own terms, which allows them to move forward and adjust to the new normal [reality] they are learning.

Q: What does the organization need?

A: We actually need continued funding to grow and reach more children. That’s our primary objective because it takes money to reach children. We help about 160 family members a year. Our mentor program allows us to expand by helping us maintain relationships with children even after they have transitioned out of our program at the center. We are especially interested in volunteers who are willing to make a long-term commitment as mentors. Due to the absence of male role models in many of our children’s lives, we are hoping more African-American men will consider reaching out to our children.

We are also looking to increase opportunities for children to participate in cultural and sporting events through the donations of tickets or passes. The children love attending these enrichment opportunities that expose them to new possibilities.

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