BY Lawrence Ferber
April 13 2005 12:00 AM ET
It is easy to spread hope'especially with the help of a fully loaded recreational vehicle. The RV is part of Road to Hope, a national HIV education tour pulling into 24 universities and high schools throughout April and early May. It is the brainchild of Todd Murray, whose San Francisco'based Hope's Voice organization was founded to reach and support young people under 25.
'The Road to Hope tour was inspired by a group of HIV-positive young adults who wanted to talk about their experiences and provide students with an evening of HIV education,' says Murray, 24. 'We know we will be traveling through states where many'if not most'young adults have not had the opportunity to meet a peer living with HIV. We wanted to show the world that we could bring about change and inspire young adults to become activists and reach students who would not otherwise have the opportunity to hear our messages.'
Murray himself was diagnosed as HIV-positive at 20. It was this news, he says, that inspired him to create a Web site for HIV-positive young people, Positive Hope (www.positivehope.org). Positive Hope provides 'resources, referrals, education, advocacy, a sense of community, support, and hope for young adults in 47 states and 24 countries,' he notes. Taking things a step further in 2004, Murray and AIDS activist Danielle Rivera launched another resource: Hope's Voice (www.hopesvoice.org). Committed to promoting education about and prevention of HIV among young adults, Hope's Voice created a 'Does HIV Look Like Me?' poster and postcard campaign and sends young HIVers to schools for speaking engagements year-round.
'We receive amazing feedback from people who attend our programs and hear our speakers,' Murray reports. 'Many talk about the lack of sexual information in their school and the need to be educated and connected on this topic. We have young adults in our audience who are positive, living in fear and rejection. They are able to see young adults living with the same disease who are strong and continuing to follow their dreams.'
Hope's Voice partnered with the Student Global AIDS Campaign (www.fightglobalaids.org) to present Road to Hope. 'Students and young people do not yet realize their power in stopping the spread of this virus and guaranteeing access to treatment and care around the world,' says Healy Thompson, national coordinator for SGAC. 'By taking the tour to schools, we can spread awareness and mobilize students to be responsible in their own lives and to take on advocacy roles.' Stops on the D.C.'to'San Francisco tour include Johns Hopkins University, University of Chicago, Baylor University, University of Michigan, University of Arizona, and University of California, Los Angeles.
These stops were determined through an application process in which interested schools or student groups filled out requests. Michelle Weinberger, chairwoman of Oberlin College's SGAC chapter, says she requested a tour stop at her school because 'I think it will be a great way to merge domestic and global AIDS issues on our campus. The tour provides students with the opportunity to hear stories firsthand, breaking the misguided belief that it cannot happen to them.'
A typical tour stop will entail a panel discussion and question-and-answer session with young HIVers. SGAC representatives will also be on hand to discuss how to start an SGAC chapter at the participating schools. Students will have the opportunity to visit the RV for conversations and to pick up educational materials. Tour officials also will be working with school health centers, community testing facilities, public-health departments, and Road to Hope sponsor OraSure Technologies to offer rapid HIV tests at each stop.
Sharing a diverse array of personal stories'some inspirational, others devastating'tour speakers include 26-year-old Idahoan Duane Quintana, who created a short film about his story and an HIV support Web site (www.imjustmejustlikeyou.com); Lesley P. Williams, a 25-year-old mother of three; and Cassey Weierbach, a wheelchair-bound 26-year-old who has advanced AIDS.
'All I've ever wanted was to educate people about an illness that I live with every day,' Weierbach says. 'I'm at the end of the disease, and I want to use the time I have left to put all I have into this project.'
Although the tour is stopping at only one high school'Robert Louis Stevenson High School in Pebble Beach, Calif.'the organizers say there will be no compromises when it comes to discussing HIV openly now or during future tours, regardless of the current political climate. 'It's important to remember that this tour is not promoting an abstinence-only agenda, and we will not 'teach' a school's sexual education course,' Murray says. 'We're not there to encourage them to be sexually active or abstinent. We're there to provide them an education and a personal connection to HIV.'