'Face to face with heartbreaking stories'; Carroll students moved by AIDS memorial quilt

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Boisterous students rushed into the Westminster High School library yesterday, expecting to take a quick look at the AIDS memorial quilt and dash off an assignment.

But faced with this sad piece of Americana, they fell silent before pictures and relics of the dead.

"It goes from a rumble to a silence every time," said Margaret Cush, health and physical education teacher at the Carroll County school.

"Kids don't know what to expect; they are usually just happy to get out of class," said Pam Shurkin, a member of the Maryland Association of Student Councils who organized the first statewide high school quilt tour. "But then they come face to face with heartbreaking stories. I have seen many kids with tears. This is making a difference."

The NAMES Project, an AIDS-awareness foundation based in San Francisco, has organized the national School Quilt Program to target teens, who are the highest-risk group for acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

"Fifty percent of all new cases are in youth," said Tom DeCaigny, program coordinator.

Westminster, Franklin and about 15 other high schools in the state are displaying sections of the quilt this month and next. The panels will travel to Wilde Lake in Columbia and Broadneck in Annapolis.

"By going to all these schools, we can give thousands of people the experience of the quilt," said Shurkin, president of Franklin's Student Government Association. "A lot of young people really feel invincible. Maybe this will save lives."

Each school also schedules an AIDS education assembly and invites the community to an open house to see the quilt. Curriculum guides for teachers and pamphlets supply statistics and detailed information for the students.

"It brings a message of prevention and education," said DeCaigny. "We want to bring this home to students, make it real to youth.

Since 1987, the NAMES Project has been collecting and displaying the panels to teach the world about the disease that has claimed millions of lives. In 1996, the entire quilt -- more than 43,000 panels -- stretched across 2,500 yards in front of the nation's Capitol. And it is still growing, by about 50 panels a week.

Westminster sophomore Erin Gresh said the 12-foot-square mostly black and white section gave her a broader perspective on AIDS, one that everyone should share.

"It helps high school students be aware of the real world, not just the little bubble we live in now," she said. "It makes me aware of what is going on in the world and that bad things can happen to good people when they don't look out for themselves."

A quilt section contains eight panels, each with telling reminders of those who have died. The Westminster students stared intently, taking note of smiling photographs and the poignant words stitched into the cloth.

"I feel really sad for the families that had to go through this," said freshman Megan Blizzard. "It makes you think about what life really is. The panels express how people really feel about their loved ones. It makes us all feel a respect for them."

Senior Thomas Miller said the patches help put a face on the disease.

"This is somebody's family; somebody is missing these people," said Miller. "All it takes is one mess-up, and you have a deadly disease for the rest of your life."

Pub Date: 3/04/99

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