WARRENTON - The discussion was frank, honest and most of all, educational - dealing specifically with the hard, cold facts about HIV/AIDS.
It was played out before an estimated audience of more than 250 teenagers at Warren County Middle-High School last Wednesday. The health forum was co-sponsored By Black Entertainment Television Network in conjunction with their Rap-It-Up public awareness campaign about this issue. The two-hour forum also was co-sponsored By Power 107 Radio Station.
A number of celebrities participated in the panel discussion, which involved questions being asked By students from Warren, Hancock and Taliaferro counties who attended the forum. The celebrities included Joe Clair, a stand-up comedian and former longtime BET on-air host; Sammie, an R&B recording artist; Denise Stokes, an AIDS advocate; Teresa Parker, an HIV/AIDS health educator; Devin T. Robinson, a motivational speaker; and Kydd Joe, a radio personality with Power 107 in Augusta.
Abstinence was another subject discussed during the forum, as well as using illegal drugs and social issues, such as assuming personal responsibility for one's own actions.
"We need these kinds of forums in the African-American communities of America," said Mr. Clair. "We're doing this to start a new dialogue with kids. Even though people don't want to talk about it openly, the subject of HIV/AIDS needs to be discussed within the black communities because it is affecting so many African-Americans today."
Mr. Clair, who worked as a BET television host for eight years, said he believes one of the biggest messages about the HIV/AIDS awareness campaign begins with every individual in assuming responsibility for their own actions.
"We need to send a message to our kids to be more responsible," said Mr. Clair. "We need to tell them to take care of themselves and to know about diseases such as HIV/AIDS and how they contract this particular disease and other sexually transmitted diseases. We need to tell them that having sex too early can oftentimes have ramifications."
When it comes to the issue of having sex too early, Mr. Clair said, "We try to push abstinence as much as we can."
After speaking with a host of reporters, Mr. Clair addressed a large group of students from several surrounding counties in the school auditorium, including a host of parents, teachers and Warren County School Superintendent Carole Jean Carey.
There, Mr. Clair asked whether they understood what HIV/AIDS was or they could get it.
AIDS actually stands for acquired immune deficiency syndrome. AIDS is an affliction in which a virus has weakened the body's immune system and cancer or other serious infections have arisen.
Most often, AIDS is spread By sexual contact.
Asked if the message is enough, Mr. Clair pondered for a moment before responding. "No, it's not enough, but it's certainly a beginning. It's a nice step in the right direction. Do I think we can do more, heck, yes."
He also believes that it's going to take parents and grandparents taking an active role, too.
For the past eight years, BET has been involved in an HIV/AIDS awareness campaign across America, but the journey to Warren County was one of the first times they have made their way into East Central Georgia. The campaign was the idea of BET Executive Vice-President of Advertising and Sales, Kelli Lawson, according to Vikki Johnson, who serves as senior manager of public affairs with BET.
"When they came to me with the approval of the idea, it was the size of a composition notebook," said Ms. Johnson. "They gave it to me and said run with it. Since then, this project has really grown and become highly successful in terms of reaching teenagers."
R&B recording artist Sammie brought an uplifting message to students.
"I'm living my dream everyday," the singer said. "I encourage you to live your dream, too. Be your own leader, your own follower. Follow yourself. Set your own standards."
AIDS Advocate Denise Stokes provided teens with a personal account of what it's like to have been tested positive for the AIDS virus when she was a teenager.
She admitted having had sex as a teen and contracting the AIDS virus as a result.
"I never knew I had the AIDS virus until later on when I was trying to get into the military," said Ms. Stokes. "I thought I was going to die before I ever really grew up."
She pleaded with the teenagers at Warren County Middle/High School to "hear this. Even if you've heard this before and are tired of hearing it - hear it."
Emma Sinkfield, who works with an outreach community program known as Family of Families, is convinced that the messages heard By area teenagers will be an effective way of reaching them.
In this area alone, Ms. Sinkfield pointed out, "We have seen a decline in recent years in teenage pregnancy, drug use and alcohol and tobacco use among teens. We just have to continue positive outreach awareness programs like this to reach more and more teenagers."
Some of the local and state agencies participating in the health forum included: The University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service's Thomson office, East Central Health District, Tri-County Health System, Georgia Department of Labor's Thomson office, Wellcare of Georgia Inc. and Family of Families of Warrenton.