Mother presses schools on HIV pen-pal project Program for children faces slow going; AIDS fears blamed

For six months, Beth Hodge has been trying to involve Howard County schools with the Whitney Project, which pairs HIV-infected children in other states with local 8- to 13-year-old pen pals.

The Elkridge resident's Cub Scout den is participating. And some teachers at Elkridge Elementary and Centennial High schools in Ellicott City say they are interested in the New Mexico-based program.


But the program has yet to be offered in local classrooms. Teachers say they like the concept and just haven't worked out the scheduling and other details.

But health professionals, some parents and Ms. Hodge say they suspect that attitudes toward AIDS may be part of the reason for the delay. They say acquired immune deficiency syndrome may be viewed as too sensitive a topic for adults to discuss with children.


"HIV still has a stigma and is often associated with deviant behavior," said Ms. Hodge, a licensed nurse and health education specialist for the Maryland Division of Parole and Probation. "But [parents] need to know prevention starts right now."

Her husband, Dennis, agrees.

"[The Whitney Project] is a tender, nice, safe way to present the disease to the community," he said.

"There's been a slow response because there is confusion. The Whitney project isn't about sexual issues, but just real humanitarian love and care."

Last year, there were 12 people diag-nosed with AIDS in Howard County, according to the Maryland Division of AIDS Surveillance; three Howard residents died of the disease. Statewide, 1,324 people were diagnosed with AIDS last year, 16 of them younger than 12.

Since 1981, 13,082 people in Maryland have been diagnosed with the disease.

In Howard, some parents appear eager for their children to receive AIDS awareness information, while others are extremely hesitant, said Jennifer Blumberg, regional AIDS educator for Howard County. She speaks to community and church groups about the disease.

"When you say you're going talk about AIDS, [parents] think you're going to talk about sex," she said. Often church groups will request that she only emphasize abstinence, while other groups prefer her to encourage condom use, she said.


AIDS awareness is woven into the county public schools' general curriculum for health education, social studies, science and home economics classes for fourth graders up through high school, said Linda Rangos, the system's health education resource teacher.

In fourth grade, students learn about compassion toward people with AIDS. In middle school, students learn about the proper handling of blood, human sexuality and health issues. In high school, they learn about the discrimination that exists against people with AIDS, Ms. Rangos said.

But supporters of the Whitney Project -- named after a Chicago girl infected with the human immunodeficiency virus -- say it adds an important personal dimension to AIDS education.

The program also "allows children who are living with AIDS -- and in isolation -- to communicate with their peers," said Stella Reed, the project's program coordinator, in Santa Fe, N.M. "It's great for classrooms, too, because it helps end discrimination against people with AIDS."

To get involved with the Whitney Project, a school needs only the permission of its principal and parents, said Ms. Rangos. Approval is not required from the central administration.

Even so, interest has been slow and sporadic, Ms. Hodge said. "People aren't real excited about AIDS, because it's scary," she said. "But I have faith in my community."


In the meantime, she isn't waiting for the local schools to pick up the program. Her children -- Amanda, 8; Kevin, 7; and Katie, 4 -- and Cub Scout den members write letters and send gifts to a 9-year-old New York girl with AIDS.

They are Maryland's only participants in the Whitney Project.

In December, they mailed their pen pal a package including a gold bracelet, Pocahontas play set and backpack. A second shipment of origami crafts, stuffed animals, cards and letters is due to go out this week for Valentine's Day, Ms. Hodge said.

"I don't think it's ever too early to talk about health issues," said Kathy Tomaszewski, mother of a 7-year-old in Ms. Hodge's Cub Scout den. She is not sure her son knows that AIDS "is a sexually transmitted disease, but he understands it can be spread through blood. That's a good thing for children to know."

Information about the Whitney Project is available by paging Beth Hodge at (410) 408-0428.