GRAFENWOEHR, Germany — Using markers and linen canvas, students at Vilseck Youth Center created images and messages on World AIDS Day that challenge and reimagine the way society views the disease. The result: a quilt with a resounding message of compassion and acceptance.
Pitched and made possible by Monique O’Neil, manager of USAG Bavaria Exceptional Family Member Program, the Youth Center World AIDS Day Project — as it’s been termed — garnered lots of community involvement.
ACS, AFN Bavaria, the on-post youth centers, EFMP and about 25 volunteer sixth and seventh graders gathered at the Youth Center on Rose Barracks Dec. 1 to assemble 100 individual square pieces into a quilt that embodies opinions of the rising generation.
Today, more than 1 million people in the U.S. are infected with HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, is the most serious stage of the virus. No cure for the virus or disease are currently available.
Messages such as “still alive,” “kissing and hugging don’t cause HIV” and “demand for a cure” made up some of the students’ squares. Other students communicated their reaction to class-like discussions on AIDS and HIV with simple drawings of hearts and warm colors.
Inspired by personal relationships and through her work as an EFMP coordinator, O’Neil used the hands-on project to educate the students on the disease, discussing major advancements in treatment, social stigmas and the medically-recognized ways HIV and AIDS are transmitted.
“The kids and I, we pow-wowed. We sat around the fire place, and we talked. At no time was this is a sex conversation. That’s a stigma that needs to go,” O’Neil said, adding that things such as casual touch and refused medical care are problems of the past.
The project was also about giving younger voices a moment at the mic.
“The youth, they’re the next generation,” said O’Neil. “They have very powerful voices. The students are sending a message that their generation is working to improve the world by eliminating stereotypes. Our generation of HIV and AIDS is not your generation of HIV and AIDS.”
When asked about the group of students and their involvement in the project, Youth Center Director Damon McGibboney reflected on the center’s multiple community service engagements and the kids’ seemingly endless enthusiasm.
“These guys like to do stuff. This is a fun group. Lots of energy. We actually have a hard time figuring out enough stuff for them to do,” McGibboney said. “But that’s the beauty of the program. They enjoy it. They want to do it.”
The on-post Youth Centers are open weekdays and every other Saturday to DOD children from sixth to twelfth grade. The center is free and has field trips, museum visits, leadership opportunities and community service projects throughout the year. The Youth Center also offers a youth employment program.