PELHAM — They have never known a world without AIDS. By their senior year of high school, they probably heard the word “condom” more often than their parents had in their entire lives.
Pelham’s Nicole Graham, 23, Keith Tessier, 22 and Alissa Desmarais, 22, are part of a generation that views the banana as more than just a delicious tropical fruit, memories of health teachers using it as a model to demonstrate the correct way to use a condom forever burned onto their brains.
This June marks the 25th anniversary of the discovery of AIDS cases in the United States, an epidemic that the Centers for Disease Control estimates had claimed more than 500,00 lives in this country alone by the end of 2004, and another 24.5 million worldwide. It is estimated that 40 million people are living with HIV/Aids worldwide, with 8,254 documented cases in Massachusetts and 535 in New Hampshire.
On June 4, the trio will join more than 10,000 others in walking the 6.2- mile AIDS Walk Boston course that winds its way from the Hatch Shell on the Charles River Esplanade, through the streets of Boston, into Brookline and back again to the river. Registration for the walk begins at 8:30 a.m., while the walk begins at 10 a.m.
Funds raised will benefit the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts, a group that provides needed services such as housing, legal support and utility assistance to those living with HIV/AIDS.
Tessier, a life coach who works with the mentally handicapped, has lost friends to AIDS. Although he is not sure that he can complete the 6.2-mile walk, he felt he needed to do something to raise money and awareness to battle the disease.
“AIDS is a horrible thing to go through and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone,” he said. “It is such a prominent disease, but still people don’t want to talk about it. Doing the walk is more about just raising money. It is also about boosting awareness.”
The group had been planning to walk last year, but circumstances stood in their way.
“I got mono, so we couldn’t do it, but we are excited about it this year,” said Graham, also a life coach. “I hope we can raise some money. There are so many other causes out there. We don’t want to see it become a forgotten disease.”
Desmarais is especially proud that her little sister Ashley, 14, decided to walk with them as soon as she heard about it.
“It is so important to bring awareness to the younger kids, and I’m so glad my sister is participating,” she said. “I see more stop-smoking and Viagra commercials on television than AIDS awareness messages and we need to keep the information out there.”
Tessier does have one problem with the timing of the Boston event.
“The AIDS Walk kicks off the city’s gay-pride week, which just continues the misconception that AIDS is a gay disease,” he said.
Pelham, a small town of about 8,000 residents in the early1980s, was a pioneer in introducing AIDS education into the high-school curriculum.
“We went from having no mention of it at all when I started here to putting it in a separate unit,” said Pelham High School Athletic Director Judy Metz, who began teaching health at the school in 1984. “We now have a health requirement for sophomores that covers AIDS — what it is, how it is contracted, prevention and treatment.”
Metz added that the school’s Peer Outreach Program distributes red ribbons on World AIDS day to boost awareness. She credits former health teacher Duke Diaz with bringing the topic into the school.
“He was so proud of incorporating AIDS education into the lessons. It wasn’t even in the textbooks yet when we started teaching it.”
Through the years, Metz has seen the perception and awareness of the disease among young people change dramatically.
“At first it was so frightening, a real hysteria because no one really knew much about it, but the kids today have heard so much about it since they were very young,” she said. “They take it very seriously, but are they more careful? I don’t know.”
“Even with the new drug treatments and people living long, ultimately it is still a death sentence, so awareness and prevention are still our most important tools,” Metz said.
To make a donation in support of Graham, Tessier and Desmarais, or for more information about AIDS Walk Boston, visit www.aidswalkboston.org.
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