Ryan White’s legacy continues. Not only did the teenager from Kokomo, Ind., become a worldwide symbol for AIDS education and awareness, but his experience of ridicule and shame because of the disease helped break down the stigma associated with AIDS.
Social Health Association recently received a grant from the Legacy Fund Community Foundation, a CICF affiliate, to teach Making A Difference!™, a teen pregnancy and STD prevention program, in schools in Hamilton County, including the Hamilton Heights School District Ryan had attended.
Misunderstanding bred prejudice
AIDS was poorly understood in the 1980s. Only after news of the legal battle with his previous school district drew national attention, and Ryan was befriended by celebrities, did people begin to understand AIDS and how it is and is not transmitted.
To remove themselves from continued harassment, Ryan’s family moved to Cicero, where he attended Hamilton Heights High School until he succumbed to pneumonia in 1990.
Ryan had a much different experience at Hamilton Heights.
Preparation was key
Art teacher Jim Hedges was at the high school then and said the administration was well prepared. “We had time to get ready for Ryan’s arrival. They did a good job of making it normal. Everyone accepted him here.”
Mr. Hedges gave high marks to Principal Tony Cook who later became the district’s superintendent and is now an Indiana State Representative for House District 32.
“Things haven’t changed much,” says Mr. Hedges. “Medical records are protected today, and the administration provides professional development workshops on issues like bullying. They keep us informed.”
Jody Kiemeyer, who teaches Human Growth and Development for Social Health Association to fourth through sixth grade students and is beginning her third school year as a SHA Health Educator, grew up in Cicero and remembers what it was like.
“Cicero knew the national spotlight was on us,” said Jody. “School administrators wouldn’t have tolerated bullying of any kind. We were proud to be good role models on how to be accepting and not be afraid.”
Fact-based HIV/AIDS education
“The school talked to students about what HIV is and how it is transmitted,” said Jody. “They said, these are the facts. You can’t get it from hugging, being in the same room or sneezing.”
Today, professional Health Educators at SHA take the same approach to teaching. “We give students medically accurate facts,” Jody explains. “We talk to them about making healthy choices, and what are the outcomes of each choice might be.”
Superintendent Dr. Derek Arrowood observed one of SHA’s sessions last year and was complimentary of the professionalism and expertise of the Health Educator and how relevant and critical the information was for middle school students.
“It was a somber occasion for everyone,” said Jody, regarding the passing of Ryan White. “He was buried in Cicero 50 yards from our house. There were celebrities there, it was in PEOPLE Magazine, and you knew it was significant.”
The experience was overwhelming for the community, but they showed the world what it means to be compassionate and open-minded.”
Social Health Association teaches facts about HIV/AIDs, STDs and teen pregnancy while also teaching compassion, kindness and empathy through Step Up for Kindness! and CARE – Communicating with And Respecting Each other.