My HIV Education Mission to Russia
It's an early day today. I leave the hotel at 4:30 a.m. for the 7 a.m. flight from Yekaterinburg to St. Petersburg and hour-and-a-half drive to Gatchina.
Gatchina is a quaint town on the outskirts of St. Petersburg with a beautiful palace that was a summer house for Tsar Pavel I. But as nice as the town is, I am not here to tour the palace or see the sights. I am here to see PSI's work with partner organizations.
During my morning brief, I am impressed to find out that PSI is working so closely with USAID, other organizations and the local government to provide the best services and information to young people. This information gives me hope.
My first stop in Gatchina is a panel discussion with several officials from St. Petersburg and Gatchina. I feel more prepared at this panel discussion. Yesterday, I met adults who are using injecting drugs and are HIV positive. I have heard their heartbreaking stories. I have also met kids full of life, benefiting from programs that teach them important life skills. I'm ready to tell their stories.
Gatchina is actually the site of the first "Youth Center," which was housed in the youth medical center and local schools in the fall of 2007 and targets kids ages 11 to 18. What makes this so special is that healthcare and medical providers also work with families. Parents can receive one-on-one support or join a group of other parents who want to support each other in better communication and parenting.
After the panel discussion, I join a group of very special and talented kids in a very small room, packed with people. In front of me is a group of deaf and hearing-impaired youths. And they are quickly preparing an improvisational skit for their eager audience about HIV. The activity helps educate deaf children about making healthy choices. Through acting, they learn about important topics like safe sex, getting tested for HIV, being faithful and honest with your partner—all in an interactive, fun and positive way.
Deaf children in Russia are often stigmatized, and those who have HIV bear the burden of a double stigma. Even more concerning is they often lack access to reading materials that educate them on living a healthy life. The program I'm visiting provides these educational materials (they are developing comic books that will address HIV, drug use and healthy choices) along with a support network and a nurturing, healthy environment.
The skit is a highlight for me, and the PSI peer educator is one of the best, most animated and positive kids I have ever met. I am super impressed. Again, I have hope.
Next, I go right next door to a medical center, where I meet with another group of kids who benefit from counseling services. They are well adjusted, they have dreams and goals, and they are not at all nervous to talk in front of their friends (or the dozen or so adults in the room).
Natasha, 11, told me she wants to be a doctor. Andrei, 16, says his dream is to be a politician. And Sergei, 12, talked about his love for music. Hopefully this will be a constructive part of life like tennis was for me. They see their future ahead of them and they don't plan to let drugs or alcohol get in the way of their success. This program is a perfect example of success.
I'm back in St. Petersburg now and have an hour or so to rest.
I knew my next activity would be tough—but not this tough