Teens-Agers Get Straight Talk From Their Peers on the Dangers of AIDS

Times Staff Writer

Shelan Joseph says she feels a sense of urgency about the need to inform fellow teen-agers about AIDS and the dangers presented by the deadly virus.

“Haven’t you ever . . . just felt you were the person to do it?” the intense 17-year-old asked. “It just seems like it’s something I really believe in.”

Joseph’s concern prompted her and several other Pasadena-area teen-agers to form what is believed to be one of the first teen-age task forces in the state to promote AIDS education among teen-agers.


The group hopes that its first event, a benefit dance on Saturday, will call attention to the need to heighten teen-age awareness of acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

“It’s life-threatening,” she said. “No one wants to sit down and think that ‘I might die if I have sex.’ ”

The dance, called “I’m AIDS Aware,” will be held from 8 to 11:30 p.m. at the plaza at Pasadena City Hall. Proceeds from the $3 entrance fee will go to the Ryan White National Fund, established in honor of a 15-year-old Indiana boy who was barred from school after he contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion.

Television personalities, including Tony O’Dell from “Head of the Class,” Alphonso Ribero of “Silver Spoons” and Alysa Milano of “Who’s the Boss,” have agreed to attend the dance.

Joseph said she has also written letters to President Reagan and Surgeon General C. Everett Koop telling them about the task force and inviting them to the dance.

Joseph, a senior at Mayfield Senior School, a Catholic girls’ school in Pasadena, said it is important for young people do their part to make people aware of AIDS and its dangers.


“This is going to be a teen effort, and teens will pull it off,” she said.

“We wanted to do something that was a little bit more fun and that would make people aware. Once they become more aware in the right way, they’ll seek the education.”

The idea for a teen-agers’ AIDS task force and a dance evolved from a six-hour AIDS awareness seminar sponsored last summer by Planned Parenthood, the Red Cross and the Pasadena AIDS Community Coordinating Committee.

Joseph, who has worked as a peer counselor for Planned Parenthood for three years, said that when she has given talks on birth control at various high schools, students repeatedly asked about AIDS and what they could do to protect themselves.

So she and 35 other students trained to become AIDS peer counselors.

“When they gave the stats (at the seminar), people were really scared,” she said. “You saw the fear, or they thought, ‘Well, no, it can’t happen to me because I’m not homosexual or don’t do drugs.’ ”

She and nine other teen-agers held a follow-up session, at which they decided to form the task force and stage the benefit dance.

At the Red Cross Center in Pasadena last week, Joseph told the volunteers from Marshall Fundamental, Blair, John Muir and St. Francis high schools and Cal State Los Angeles what needed to be done.


“You need to understand that if you are here, it is because you’re saying that you’re committing yourselves for the whole night,” she told the students, who have agreed to handle security, collect fees, sell soft drinks and clean up.

Robert Lett, assistant director of youth services for the Pasadena Red Cross chapter, who helped in the AIDS seminar and has been guiding Joseph and her group, said that Pasadena schools only recently began to promote AIDS awareness.

“We needed to get teens involved because we can teach, but it makes it credible when they’re a part of it,” he said.

Joseph said she encountered some resistance in organizing and promoting the event.

When she was passing out flyers advertising the dance, one student looked at it and threw it away, saying “Don’t give me this AIDS stuff.”

She said that some students were confused by petitions distributed at schools asking students to sign if they are “AIDS aware,” meaning that they know what AIDS is and the dangers it presents.

“They thought that if they were signing it they were saying they had AIDS,” said Michelle Keith, 16, of John Marshall Fundamental School.


The students agree that their task isn’t easy.

“They don’t take it (AIDS) seriously,” said Christina Sheldon, 17, a student at Blair High School in Pasadena.

“They don’t worry about it and don’t take precautions,” said Joseph Levy, 16, also of Blair.

George Bent, 17, a student at St. Francis, a Catholic high school for boys, said that if one student becomes aware of what AIDS is all about, the group’s efforts will be worth it.

“You’ve got to think that if you’ve gotten through to that one person then you’ve succeeded,” he said.

Joseph said she hopes teen-agers in other cities will follow this example and form their own AIDS task forces.

And she hopes the goal of all task forces will remain the same.

“Right now AIDS is in control--and we should be in control,” she said.