"Tell me, Tyler, is AIDS even a problem in the U.S.? What are the statistics like there?"
Four years ago, I was driving my friend Elias home while working abroad in South Africa. He lives in a rural community in Limpopo Province, an area in northeastern South Africa with one of the highest prevalence rates of HIV/AIDS in the country. Elias had seen friends and classmates suffer from the impacts of HIV/AIDS, spurring him to take action himself. He took on a job at a local NGO, the Centre for Positive Care, spearheading research initiatives on HIV and AIDS. I met Elias while studying abroad in South Africa two years earlier. Witnessing the impact of AIDS on communities like his had inspired me to do something about it, so I began volunteering in South Africa with an organization that used soccer as a tool to disseminate HIV prevention messages to youth.
I was caught off guard by his question. First, I tried to cover up my uncertainty with a quick answer. "I don't think it's a big problem in America," I started to say. Then I stopped and realized I had no idea what I was talking about. I could tell Elias the prevalence of HIV in every South African province, but I couldn't tell him anything about the epidemic in the United States. As a teenager, everything I read about AIDS in the media was limited to Africa. I naively assumed that Americans were not affected by the epidemic that was crippling the developing world.
I let that moment of insecurity with Elias fall by the wayside when I returned home at the end of the summer. But the question nagged again a few months later, when I was asked to put together a fact sheet about HIV/AIDS in our nation's capital, Washington, DC. I quickly found that Americans were far from immune to this disease. I was shocked to find that just steps away from the White House, HIV prevalence is higher than in many Sub-Saharan African countries.
Right now, an estimated 1 in 20 adults living in DC is infected with HIV. Common misconceptions are that HIV in the U.S. only affects older adults or men who have sex with men. But the reality is that infection rates among teenagers in DC has doubled in just five years. The vast majority of these new infections are through heterosexual transmission of HIV.
In 2009, after graduating from the University of Virginia, I moved to DC to focus my energy for HIV prevention on the at-risk youth of Washington, DC. I noticed that while it wasn't the norm for teens to talk openly about HIV, sports and athletes were a hot topic. I worked with a crew of high school students in Southeast DC to adapt the South African soccer-based curriculum for use in DC, and then recruited a group of college athletes to be the first to teach the curriculum. Together we started The Grassroot Project, an organization of student-athletes who facilitate sports-based HIV/AIDS education programs in DC schools and community centers. Initially the Grassroot Project was just a group of 40 athletes teaching HIV/AIDS lessons in three DC schools. Now three years later, we have grown to include hundreds of NCAA athletes in DC educating thousands of youth at 27 public and charter schools.
In South Africa, HIV/AIDS presented a series of challenges that kept Elias and I working long days. But starting an organization like The Grassroot Project has shown me that similar challenges also exist world away, just blocks from my apartment. While hundreds of DC-based NGOs and government institutions work to stem the tide of HIV in Africa, we are still struggling to control the epidemic in our own backyard.
In the coming months, I will be blogging about the issues and challenges faced by The Grassroot Project, leading up to this summer's International AIDS Conference that will be hosted in DC. I hope to share with you the experiences of a group of young people committed to building and sustaining a local HIV prevention organization in the complex, dynamic environment of our nation's capital.
I hope you'll continue to follow this blog and the stories of our students, athletes, and community members.
To follow us online, like "The Grassroot Project" on Facebook, or on twitter @GrassrootDC.
To support our efforts, please visit www.grassrootproject.org.