Though Washington denizens and politicos spend a lot of time debating health care, they don’t spend much time discussing the health of the city. Considering this deficiency, it is no surprise that one of the central goals of Metro TeenAIDS, a non-profit organization dedicated to eradicating HIV/AIDS in the District, is motivating Washingtonians to talk about health.
“Children’s health is missing from the conversation in Washington, D.C.,” explains Adam Tenner, the Executive Director of Metro TeenAIDS. That’s why the organization dedicates so much of its resources to spreading information. As Tenner explains, “Kids who know the risk tend to make better decisions.
The better decisions that Metro TeenAIDS advocates are vital to the city’s health. Washington, D.C. has the highest HIV infection rate in the country, with at least 3% of our population affected as compared to 1% of the general population, according to the World Health Organization.
To help reduce that rate, Metro TeenAIDS employs 50 youth ambassadors to spread information through their social networks. They also provide education in all public middle and high schools in the city, as well as 30% of charter schools. Information is so important to the organization that they even have a text help-line that provides teens with facts about testing, the disease, and prevention.
As if that weren’t enough, Metro TeenAIDS also provides testing for HIV, STDs, and pregnancy. After testing, the organization connects individuals who test positively with health care professionals. They also provide mental health counseling for those who are infected or who have lost someone to AIDS, demonstrating their mission to support individuals at every stage of the disease.
Through this comprehensive approach, Metro TeenAIDS makes 30,000 contacts with young people in Washington each year. But Tenner, who won the Meyer Foundation Exponent Award in 2010, wants to keep working until they reach all of the city’s youth. When explaining his passion for health education, Tenner gave the example of Monica, a youth ambassador with Metro TeenAIDs who told him she received only ten minutes of HIV education in 10th grade. When she contracted HIV, Monica dedicated herself to making sure that her peers received more than a meager ten minutes of information.
Monica died at 22. Tenner and Metro TeenAIDS will keep working until stories like Monica’s are merely history.
Quick Q&A with Adam Tenner
Washington Life: What is the mission of Metro TeenAIDS?
Adam Tenner: We would like to put ourselves out of business and end the HIV epidemic in Washington, D.C. We want to make sure that kids who have HIV can live as long as possible, and that those who don’t can prevent themselves from getting it.
WL: How was Metro TeenAIDS founded?
AT: The organization was founded in 1988 by a doctor at Children’s Hospital who had seen kids die of unexplained diseases [in the early 1980s]. When we started to understand what HIV was in the mid 80s, he started one of the first HIV clinics for adolescents in the country. Once we understood that it was a preventable disease, he really felt that there needed to be a community based response. So Metro TeenAIDS was initially founded as a coalition of organizations that hoped to spread information about HIV to kids throughout the community.
WL: How can people get involved?
AT: The number one thing that I always say is that people should talk about HIV. For a city that is so highly impacted, it is a discussion that few of us have. The transformation that I see among youth and how they talk to each other about being safe and protecting their own bodies – you rarely even see adults having those conversations. Many adults know somebody who could use a good conversation. We need to tell people to get tested as part of their routine health care.
Secondarily, we have limited volunteer opportunities because so much of our work is done through kids but we are always happy to entertain something. Getting involved with our events, like our June 7th event honoring Nancy Pelosi because her first speech on the floor of Congress 25 years ago was about AIDS, and so we will be honoring her years of commitment to the cause at the Italian Embassy.
WL: What sets Metro TeenAIDs apart from other D.C. nonprofits?
AT: We have a tremendous commitment to high quality services. We communicate well about the work that we do. We know that if we can prevent three new HIV infections a year, our entire organization is cost effective. We calculate return on investment because it is important to us. Youth are at the forefront of what we do, and we believe in showing them what they can do today, and also in investing in them as the city leaders of tomorrow.
WL: Finish this sentence: “I want people in D.C. to know that…”
AT: We can change the course of the epidemic if we work together. HIV is not a given, and it’s not somebody else’s disease in DC. It concerns all of us. We can make a difference, if we work together.