The Write Stuff
The Whitney Project
"What I want kids to learn is that you can't get AIDS by being someone's friend."
It began in 1993 in the small, predominantly Hispanic, rural village of Pecos, New Mexico -- a village that had yet to feel the impact of HIV/AIDS.
Teacher Maria Mathes used student letter writing as part of her sixth-grade English curriculum. Her class wrote letters to both the famous and not-so-famous. Among their correspondents were Prince Charles, Mother Teresa, Ryan White's mother, and local people in the news who were down on their luck. One day, while browsing through a copy of People magazine, Maria came across the story of Whitney Williams, an 11-year-old Chicago girl who was living with AIDS. The next day Maria brought the article to her students, who decided that Whitney would be the latest recipient of their goodwill letters.
Thus started a friendship and support system for children affected by HIV or AIDS, called, appropriately, The Whitney Project. The Whitney Project works both locally and nationally in kindergarten through the twelfth grade, with the twofold mission of educating students about HIV/AIDS and providing emotional support for children living with the virus. It has created a worldwide network of children writing to children, working in schools to initiate pen pal friendships between students and AIDS-affected children.
Whitney and Friends
The impetus for today's Whitney Project really came from the original sixth-grade pen pals of Whitney Williams. Toward the end of the 1993 school year, those students, enthusiastic about having received letters back from Whitney, decided they would like to meet her in person. To do that, they needed to raise enough money to bring Whitney, her grandmother, and her father to Pecos for a visit. Since the children's fund raising activities included the sale of raffle tickets, the people of Pecos and neighboring areas, including Santa Fe, were aware of what the students were up to -- and they were willing to help. For example, AIDS activists in Santa Fe who were working toward the opening of Hope House, a residence for people living with HIV or AIDS, joined the effort to bring Whitney to Pecos.
When Whitney and her family arrived on May 17, 1993, it was proclaimed "Whitney Williams Day" in Pecos. The entire village turned out to greet her with an assembly of dance and music. The Mayor of Pecos presented Whitney with the key to the village, and her sixth grade pen pals received a certificate from the Governor of New Mexico. A state senator attended the festivities, which were covered by local television media. The village was inspired by the bravery of one young girl facing a life-threatening illness. The stigma surrounding AIDS was broken. "She's like family to the whole class," said one of Whitney's pen pals. "We'll always remember her." In Whitney's words, her new friends gave her "good courage."
The following year a pilot program of what was to become The Whitney Project was started in Santa Fe area elementary schools. Five classrooms were paired with five AIDS-affected children as pen pals.
In April of the first school year of testing, one of the pen pals living with AIDS, a 9-year-old boy from Chicago, died. This added a new dimension to The Whitney Project -- lessons in loss and grief. The students in the class that had written to the boy held a ceremony on the school campus and planted a tree in his honor. The students made phone calls to the child's family and sent handmade sympathy cards.
Two new chapters were added to The Whitney Project curriculum: "If a Child Dies" and "Death Is Part of the Circle of Life." Unfortunately, educators working with the Project had too many opportunities to use those lesson plans over the next few years. To date the Project has experienced the deaths of fifteen children and many parents who had been living with AIDS.
The last death of a child in the Project was that of Whitney Williams herself, in 1997. On May 13 -- just four days short of the fourth anniversary of her Pecos visit -- Whitney passed away at the age of 15. News of her death sent ripples of grief throughout New Mexico, and Maria Mathes, the teacher who started it all, flew to Illinois to be a pallbearer at her funeral.
Survival and Growth
The Project itself came close to dying a few times, due to lack of funding. Even with the publicity the Project was generating and the three awards for outstanding education that it received, it was often perceived as nebulous, not providing such tangibles as clothing, medicine, and shelter.
But with the "good courage" inspired by Whitney and the students, the work continued. AIMS Media of Chatsworth, California produced a video, narrated by teen stars Matthew and Joey Lawrence, documenting Whitney's visit to Pecos. AIDS and Kids: The Whitney Project is distributed in public schools and health agencies nationwide.
Over the years The Whitney Project has had a presence in over a hundred schools around the country, supporting many AIDS-affected children and teaching students from kindergarten through high school that you can't get AIDS by being someone's friend. In April of 1999, the Project was noticed by the Southwest Comprehensive AIDS-care, Research and Education (CARE) Center, a Santa Fe-based organization serving over 300 HIV-infected individuals and their families in the nine northeastern counties of New Mexico. Whitney has now become the Southwest CARE Center's Education and Prevention Division. This affiliation has allowed The Whitney Project to expand its curriculum to include prevention and education, along with its continuing message of compassion for people living with HIV/AIDS.
The lessons of caring have encouraged students to become activists, participating in community events that include volunteering for the local AIDS Walk, acting as pages during HIV Lobby Day at the state legislature, viewing and making panels for the NAMES Project Memorial Quilt, and creating theater, poetry, and art shows centered on the theme of AIDS.
The Whitney Project's newest program is Partners In Prevention, for students in the fifth grade and up. Each participating class is paired with an adult with HIV/AIDS from the community, who makes regular visits throughout the school year. The program draws on the uniqueness of each PWA, who brings his or her own stories, experiences, and talents to the classroom. The lasting impact comes from the bond formed between the adult and the students.
Judy Woods's fifth grade class at E.J. Martinez Elementary School in Santa Fe participates in both the pen pal program and Partners In Prevention. The class's pen pal is a 12-year-old boy, Richard, from California. In Richard's first letter to the class he wrote:
I've never been so happy to know I've got so many friends. I only have two friends here because of me having HIV. Kids won't play with me. It makes me so sad and depressed. My mom also has AIDS and is real sick most of the time. I lost my sister to AIDS already. She was a year older than me. She died at 3 years old. I still hurt for her and have dreams of her, but I keep going on. I have to. People really don't understand about AIDS, so they treat me bad lots of times by saying things to me that hurt my feelings. I've got to go now to take my medicines. I take about 18 pills a day to keep me alive. I hate it, but if I don't, I won't get to grow older. Thanks again for writing me and making me happy knowing that I have 30 new friends. God bless you all with a happy life and for being put on this planet.
For the PWAs participating in the program, both children and adults, the program also has a healing effect. "I like going into the classroom because it keeps my life in perspective, gives it a reality I wouldn't otherwise have when it comes to living with AIDS on a daily basis," says Vernon Goff. "It's a powerful experience to go in more than once and allow the kids to really get close to me. It keeps me from feeling so alone and makes me feel like I'm doing something with my AIDS other than just surviving it. AIDS is an epidemic that doesn't need to continue, and I'm doing something that helps by going into the classrooms. The kids are so affectionate and are taking something back to their parents and community. It's a whole experience."
Judy Woods says, "I know some of my students had prejudices and misconceptions. The Project changed and deepened our understanding of what the disease is and isn't. Clearly the reason I participated was to develop compassion, break down stereotypes and prejudices. For my kids, working on this project and the issue of AIDS opened their hearts. It got them in touch with their own pain. One girl in the class wrote a play about AIDS, which the students performed. They dedicated the play to Vernon."
As The Whitney Project grows, it continues to seek out AIDS-affected children to become pen pals. The benefits for these children are many. For children whose status has not been disclosed in their own communities or schools, the Project can be a way to express feelings in safety, from a distance, through writing. It can be a way of being accepted by peers, lessening isolation. For children who are public about their or their families' status, it offers an opportunity to be a peer educator. Either way, the students receiving the correspondence learn from their friends about the affects of HIV or AIDS.
Both infected and affected youth ages 5 to 19 are eligible to become pen pals with a class. There's no cost for participating, and confidentiality can be protected if the family chooses. The option of writing under a pseudonym is available for kids. For more information or to see about participating, write to The Whitney Project, 230 Manhattan Street, Suite 300, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501. The Project can also be reached by phone at the Southwest CARE Center's toll-free number, (888) 320-8200, or directly at (505) 986-1084. The fax number is (505) 986-3494, and the e-mail address is email@example.com. Information on the purchase of The Whitney Project video, AIDS and Kids, is available through The Whitney Project office.
Stella Reed is a Prevention Specialist with theSouthwest CARE Center.
This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.