My HIV Education Mission to Russia
I am still thinking about the young mother I met last night and her two baby girls as we head to the ribbon-cutting ceremony. I wonder where they slept last night and if they have had anything to eat.
Today we are officially launching the District's Youth Social Center project. I'm honored to be participating in the ceremony with the District's Vice Governor Ludmila Andreevna Kostkina and U.S. Consul General Sheila Gwaltney. Both very impressive women dedicated to helping young people in Russia.
Just to give you a little background, there are five Youth Social Center locations in Admiralteisky District in St. Petersburg. They all work to provide healthy, positive alternatives for young people. These centers prevent kids from getting into alcohol and drugs, which can lead to addiction problems, HIV and other life-threatening illnesses.
The center I get to visit is a truly welcoming place for kids of all ages. It's equipped with rooms for studying and one-on-one counseling. It has separate, comfortable activity spaces for the youth and families and younger kids. I was also really inspired by the women who run the facility. They take such pride in the safe environment they have created for their kids. You can tell they really love what they do.
After the official ribbon cutting, I tour the center. I walk into a room, more a safe haven, someplace fun and special for orphans. I jump on the floor and start playing with four children. One of the younger girls I meet hops into my lap while we're talking, and suddenly I find myself at the bottom of a mound of cute, laughing kids with giant bows in their hair! The atmosphere of the room is magical and playful, right down to the disco ball that hangs from the ceiling above us.
In the youth and family activity room, it is equally energetic as we have asked press to come. But I get a chance to talk with the teenagers here first. They are at the age when Russian youth start doing drugs. I mostly just listen to them. One boy, dressed kind of punk with orange hair, asks me what I think of his hair. I tell him to be himself. He smiles and so do I. My message to all the kids is to be an individual; to surround yourself with healthy, active friends and family; and to never feel scared to ask for support from the counselors at the center and never be afraid to ask questions. The kids pile in behind me and together we address the press.
There are many things about this center that remind me of the tennis club where I spent much of my childhood and teenage years. The club was a family and a community, and it helped me to have confidence in myself, stay focused and be the person I am today.
In the van again and off to another panel discussion. These are great. I learn from my fellow panelists, and I bring the stories of the young people I meet. Together, it's a great message we deliver. Facts, stats, stories and hope.
An inspiring performance