AIDS rally organizers urge youth to ‘know status’

Advocate staff photo by HEATHER MCCLELLAND -- Syphilis Elimination Specialist Chris Jackson, of Metro Health, takes a swab sample from an AIDS test participant at the Youth Education Aids/HIV Awareness Rally on Saturday at Howell Community Park. The event focused on educating youths about AIDS prevention, and offered free testing. Test results were available the same day.
Advocate staff photo by HEATHER MCCLELLAND -- Syphilis Elimination Specialist Chris Jackson, of Metro Health, takes a swab sample from an AIDS test participant at the Youth Education Aids/HIV Awareness Rally on Saturday at Howell Community Park. The event focused on educating youths about AIDS prevention, and offered free testing. Test results were available the same day.

Baton Rouge is No. 1 in the nation for AIDS cases, the Rev. A.J. Johnson, founder of the Baton Rouge AIDS Society and pastor at Real Life Ministries Church, told a crowd at Howell Park on Saturday.

Johnson’s address during the inaugural Youth Education AIDS/HIV Awareness Rally at the park compared the city to a person on the side of the road needing help, and he encouraged people to not simply pass by.

Despite the discouraging numbers of AIDS victims, he said, “we can do something about it.”

“If you have sex and you have not been tested, you are part of the problem,” Johnson said.

Another speaker, Millicent Foster, told the assembled young people that they didn’t have to walk in her shoes because her previous lifestyle as a crack smoker led to her AIDS diagnosis 11 years ago.

At that time, her life seemed to be over, she said. “The doctor said I had six months to live.”

Though she used to be ashamed of her status as an HIV-positive person, now she isn’t afraid to speak out, Foster said.

Prevention, getting tested and “knowing your status” were the themes of Saturday’s event.

Katya Ross, of the Baton Rouge AIDS Society, brought the organization’s mobile unit and offered free HIV tests. Metro Health also offered free testing.

Results from the units were available in 20 minutes along with counseling.

“We go to community events, nightclubs. Just make testing available. Some people don’t want to be seen coming to the agency,” Ross said.

Though the focus of the rally was HIV/AIDS prevention and testing, other health and safety information also was available.

Sexual Trauma Awareness Response volunteers handed out information about their services, which include counseling as well as other services for victims.

Other informational booths were provided by Southern University School of Nursing, event sponsor Affordable Pharmacy, Volunteers of America, HIV/AIDS Alliance for Region Two and the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program.

Sgt. Brian Firmin of the City Constable’s Office presented a demonstration about gun safety in which he showed young people a series of guns and asked whether they thought they were real or toys.

One fake gun made in Japan fooled many of the onlookers.

“If you pull this one out on somebody, it will get you killed,” Firmin said.

He added that sometimes it is difficult to tell a real gun from a toy. Children should always assume any gun they see is loaded and shouldn’t touch it, but instead tell an adult, he said.

Event organizer Rogers Cooper said that Affordable Pharmacy started planning the event after many HIV/AIDS positive teenagers began coming to the business asking questions and needing help.

“That sent us in a stage of urgency to sponsor something,” Cooper said. “We want to inform the community and get the word out that AIDS is real and possible.”

Cooper added that he is already planning another rally for 2014.

This year’s event was sponsored by Affordable Pharmacy as well as the HIV/AIDS Alliance for Region Two, Baton Rouge AIDS Society, Metro Health, Volunteers of America, Target, 100 Black Men, Subway, Chase Bank and others, Cooper said.