When a board member of the Jewish Community Center of Staten Island died 10 years ago, people were told that the cause was cancer. But not until her husband died a year or so later were people told the real cause of their deaths: AIDS.
"Their son became the poster boy for the necessity of having education about AIDS," said Scott Feldman, the former program director of the JCC. "He was involved in the leadership group at the JCC, and he and his brothers and sisters made a family decision to reveal what their parents had died of."
His decision to come forward led to the creation of THE Group, an acronym for Teen HIV Education, as a division of the JCC’s Youth Board. With a membership of eight to 12 teenagers each year, participants have traveled throughout the area using skits and lectures to educate their peers about AIDS and how it can be prevented.
"Since its inception, it has formally educated more than 3,000 teens in the tristate area, as well as countless more at parties and other gatherings," Feldman said. "They do role playing, teach [the basics about AIDS], and engage in interactive discussions. They have spoken at other schools and youth groups, such as Young Judaea and United Synagogue Youth."
One of those in the group is Justin LiGreci, 16, a junior at Curtis High School in Staten Island. He was born with the HIV virus, which has not developed into AIDS.
"I was adopted and did not find out I had it until I was 11," he said. "It turns out my biological mother was a prostitute and IV drug user."
Melovy Moreau, who adopted Justin at birth, said she was supposed to take him home when he was three days old, but did not get him for three weeks.
"When they finally gave him to me, they said he may have been a drug-withdrawal baby," she recalled. "He was very bright, but very sick and under the normal height and weight."
She used a pediatrician from the adoption agency until Justin was 11, then took him to another doctor who told her he had the HIV virus.
Justin said life became unbearable for him earlier this year in his private school because classmates threw food at him and taunted him with such names as "gay" and ‘homo." In desperation, he tried to slit his wrists in March. The blade was not sharp enough and after two attempts, Justin said, he quit.
"I realized that God was saying he needs me on earth and that he was not ready for me," he said. "It was stupid of me to have tried that."
It took six weeks for him to get enough courage to tell his mother what he did, and she immediately had him transferred to the local public school.
Justin holds everyone spellbound when he tells his story as part of THE Group’s presentation.
"I’ve had kids come up to me and say they used to think their life was the worst life possible, but that I had shown them it could be much worse," said Justin. "They leave thinking of the good things they have. And it makes me feel good knowing that I might be able to change just one person’s [outlook on life]. It makes me feel like I’ve done a great accomplishment."
Justin said that he and others in THE Group have a basic message for their peers: "AIDS is preventable and that it is easy to just say no. If you have the facts and knowledge about AIDS, it makes it much easier to resist peer pressure for the pleasure of sex or drugs."
Another member of THE Group, Joshua Baver, 17, a senior at Curtis and president of the JCC’s Youth Board, said he learned a lot about AIDS through his participation in the presentations. "What I didn’t know was enormous," he said. "The school’s programs on AIDS were uninformative and I would generally fall asleep in them."
Feldman, now program director for the JCC Services Division of the Educational Alliance in Manhattan, said that when THE Group first started, teenagers were much more knowledgeable about AIDS than are teenagers today.
"The schools were then mandated to do more," he said. "Now, they are no longer permitted to do a condom demonstration. A student can go to the guidance counselor and get a one-on-one, but that is an embarrassing ordeal. … When we used to ask how many were HIV positive or living with someone with AIDS, only one or two hands would be raised. But now, many more hands go up."
Feldman said that one of the first things he did at his new job was to invite Justin to speak with the senior management staff of the Educational Alliance and to the afternoon staff of the Educational Alliance’s Goldman Y JCC.
"I found the professional staff to be more knowledgeable than the afternoon staff, who are high school students in their teens," he said. "They really didn’t know too much."
Joshua said "most high school students are very promiscuous and 50 to 60 percent of them don’t know how to use a condom, or don’t use it properly. …All of our presentations end with a condom demonstration."
Feldman said he would like to replicate THE Group at the Goldman Y JCC. To help make sure the staff of the Educational Alliance was fully committed to that, he brought in some panels from the AIDS Memorial Quilt, each of which has four names of someone who died of AIDS. There are now 42,960 panels with 83,279 names: but that is only 20 percent of those who have died in the U.S. from AIDS.
"I am committed to doing this here," he said of THE Group. "It was something I committed myself to doing when I looked at that kid’s face and helped him bury his mother and step father."