International AIDS Conference

Global walks teach teens to fight HIV/AIDS epidemic

Organization supported entirely by volunteers

Special coverage

(AIDS Alert asked John Chittick, EdD, executive director of TeenAIDS-PeerCorps Inc., a nonprofit organization in Boston, to discuss the global walks he founded and an abstract he presented at the 14th International AIDS Conference in Barcelona, Spain. The global walks began in 1999, as Chittick spread the word about HIV/AIDS by foot in 40 countries. He spoke to teen volunteers who, in turn, were expected to educate their peers about HIV prevention. Within two years, the global walk had reached 75,000 youths, who taught HIV prevention through such techniques as Stop Action Theater, street outreach "AIDS Attacks," and "AIDS Comics," which were drawn by teens. Also there is a Teen Advice Column available in multiple languages on the Internet.1 Chittick discusses the program and its outcomes in this Q&A session.)

AIDS Alert: Would you please tell us a little about the first walk to educate youth and why this method is good a way to reach young people at risk for HIV infection across the world.

Chittick: There are many good educational methodologies to spread the AIDS prevention message to teens. Some work from the top down — mine is grass roots at the most local level. Some programs are not effective (despite costing money), while I’m convinced that my street approach is the best because it is the most direct. I use a lot of psychology when I talk about AIDS. I always ask teens to give me a few minutes as I have information that might save their best friends’ lives. I also say, "If you love a friend, it’s your responsibility to save your friend, and that happens when you tell them the medically-accurate facts." I also tell older teens to tell their younger friends. By empowering them to help spread the word, we are saving lives.

My first global walk took me to 40 countries, and about 75,000 teens were trained as peer teachers in their homelands. I pay attention to cultural issues, and I try to learn a little of the language to introduce myself and my AIDS mission. I have teens translate for me, and we pass out business cards that also are AIDS information cards in every foreign language, so teens can easily keep them and pass onto friends. Also, I ask teens about themselves and then use this information as part of my argument why they must stay healthy. Now, on my second walk, I’m up to 52 countries, and the total combined teens trained is about 90,000.

AIDS Alert: How was the global walk designed? What were some of the results of the prevention program?

Chittick: Because I receive no salary and TeenAIDS operates on the goodwill of many private donors’ donations, my walks are always tentative in the planning. As I have money, I go to countries where I think there is great need and also to countries that are experiencing heavy migration of youth (for work, study, travel, play, etc). My largest youth peer groups (PeerCorps) are in South Africa, Vietnam, India, Brazil, Austria, the United States, Mexico, Cambodia, Russia, and Kenya, but in many other countries as well. I hear from many AIDS organizations about the effectiveness of my outreach.

AIDS Alert: How can this "taking-it-to-the-streets" program more cost-effectively and efficiently teach youth about HIV prevention?

Chittick: I am not paid, and I do not pay teen helpers. We are all volunteers, and there is very little overhead cost. I have found that teens like the idea of a doctor walking in their neighborhoods to talk to them directly about an issue and that most adults in their lives are too uncomfortable to talk to them openly and honestly. Also, teens listen more and respect more when a message about sex comes from volunteers — not paid staff.

I prefer this direct approach on the street, farm roads, beaches, at sports venues, etc. I still speak at large student gatherings in schools and universities — tonight I speak in Lisbon, Portugal, to 250 student leaders — but afterward, I am taking some on the streets with me to learn how I do my outreach. Because my approach is local and different from regular AIDS efforts, the media, local TV, and newspapers cover the story, bringing it to many more youth.

AIDS Alert: What are a few strategies that other AIDS service organizations, public health clinics, and others could employ to use the global walk techniques for prevention in their own communities?

Chittick: I believe that my model of direct action can be utilized by most other groups, but it takes special training to know how to do it. Most people are too shy or very uncomfortable about walking up to strangers and talking with them about AIDS, sex, and needle use. With my trained volunteers, the direct outreach is easy, most effective, and most efficient because it costs so little. It is fun, and it makes you feel you are saving lives when the teens respond with heartfelt thanks for giving them crucial information.

AIDS Alert: Where could more information be obtained about TeenAIDS-PeerCorps Inc. and the global walk?

Chittick: TeenAIDS-PeerCorps Inc. can be found on the Internet at www.teenaids.org. The mailing address is P.O. Box 146727, Boston, MA 02114. The main number is (978) 665-9383. My e-mail address is chittick@post.harvard.edu.

Reference

1. Chittick JBC. Walking the globe to train teens to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS. Presented at the 14th International AIDS Conference. Barcelona, Spain; July 7-12, 2002. Abstract TuPeF5376.