Indy teens to talk about health with Swazi peers

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The students act confident.

“We’re ready,” they say, a chorus of 17-, 18- and 19-year-old voices.

They’re ready for an experience they fully expect to be mind-blowing, even devastating, says high school senior Kendrick Washington, 17, “knowing what we have here and seeing what they have there.”

In November, a group of 14 Crispus Attucks Medical Magnet High School students will spend two weeks getting to know teenagers who could be just like them. Except that in Swaziland, a small African country with the highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the world, many 17-year-olds are orphans. They’re heads of families. They’re middle-aged, unlikely to live much past 30.

And yet they face some of the same problems as the Indianapolis teens — the same choices about sexual health, and some of the same consequences.

This first venture to Swaziland to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS among youths is the farthest-flung school trip that Crispus Attucks has offered. It’s part educational experience, part humanitarian work and part cultural immersion.

School officials were approached by local nonprofit Saving Orphans through Healthcare and Outreach to create the trip because of the magnet school’s medical focus, The Indianapolis Star reported (http://indy.st/1aQOb1q ).

More than adult aid workers or doctoral students, Indianapolis teenagers could better connect with their Swazi peers on health choices that could stanch the country’s HIV/AIDS epidemic, said the nonprofit’s CEO, Cynthia Prime.

“I think it’s going to be life-changing on both continents,” Prime said.

In Swaziland, about a quarter of adults — from as young as age 15 — live with HIV/AIDS, according to UNICEF. Compare that with the U.S., where the HIV/AIDS rate is less than 1 percent.

Crispus Attucks students will talk to Swazi teens about safe sex and ways to prevent the spread of disease. But the use of condoms, the Indianapolis students learned, can be an offensive suggestion of cheating to a Swazi partner.

Prime’s organization is using community sponsors to foot the $4,000-per-student expense of the international trip. Students each had to pay $200.

Prime hopes the students will return as experts and local leaders in HIV/AIDS prevention. They’ll also help train college students from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis who plan to travel to Swaziland next spring.

“Health care and healthy living isn’t just something that takes place in our backyard, in Marion County, in the state of Indiana or in the United States,” said high school program coordinator Marty Weyand. “These are global issues.”

The students, who study mental health, nursing and technology, have been preparing for a year.

“It’s not like a school field trip,” Weyand said. “It’s more along the lines of work.”

Students will bring outdated computers and laptops, set them up and train people to use them. They will speak to Swazi high schools and establish a sister school relationship. They will shop for groceries using Swazi currency.

They will carry two sets of luggage: one for them, and one filled with shoes, clothes and toothbrushes for their Swazi peers.

Their lessons have taught them about an African culture in which they can’t wear shorts, and women can’t talk to men about sex.

But what 17-year-old senior Maylon Elcock seems most nervous about is showing the Swazi people how Americans dance. Among the bits of home the students will share: step routines, beat boxing and the national anthem.

The message they’ll tell their Swazi friends: “That we’re just like them,” said senior Shejuan Martin, 19. “That’s the reason we’re going. To give them hope.”

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Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by The Indianapolis Star.

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