If a town could be said to hit rock bottom, Austin, Indiana, did so in 2015. Drug abuse had been out of hand there for some time, but it took the worst possible outcome to make the Southern Indiana community of 4,200 wake up to the problem: more than 170 newly identified cases of HIV since December 2014, spread almost entirely by needle-sharing.
The event made international news, from The New York Times to the BBC, which called it “one of the most alarming HIV outbreaks in America in recent history.” Indiana Governor Mike Pence declared a public health emergency, and state and federal officials led a response effort to control the epidemic.
But for locals, the real work of change and recovery is just beginning. In this four part series, we explore the signs of hope in Austin.
Standing Up: Showing Kids Another Way
In a church basement off of Main Street in Austin, four teenagers are huddled around a sink, debating how to strain water from pasta. They’re trying to make a large pot of mac ’n’ cheese, but somebody forgot the colander.
Seventeen younger kids sit just outside the kitchen, finger painting and gluing things to colorful paper.
The kids gathered at the church are part of a new group, called Stand Up, started recently by some enterprising high school seniors. The teens know from experience that there’s not much to do in Austin, and that drug addiction can be passed down from parent to child.
In the wake of Austin’s drug-fueled HIV epidemic, the students didn’t think enough was being done.
“It was very frustrating to me, to see the adults not doing anything about it, that the kids had to make the first step, “ says Holli Reynolds, one of the group’s founders. “Nothing was being said. Everyone just went on with their day.”
Stand Up was born out of her frustrations, and those of her classmates. They thought that with an outlet and some role models, younger kids might be able to resist the drugs that are so easy to find in town.
“It sucks that they have to be here at all,” says Chandler Bowman, another Stand Up leader. “I mean, we’re helping these kids, but it sucks at all that this is even a problem. It’s ridiculous that this is a problem.”
But they have something in common. They love Austin, and they want to make it a better place to grow up.Holli and Chandler make an unlikely pair. Holli is a jock. She plays basketball. Chandler plays trumpet in the band. They live in different areas and are going to different colleges after the summer’s over.
To do that, they need to reach a lot of kids. They spend hours passing out fliers and explaining their mission to parents. They also count on the kids to recruit their friends, and it seems to be working. Today’s group is the largest yet.
“It’s nice—we didn’t expect to have this many kids,” says Chandler. “We didn’t expect to have the support we have. We couldn’t really do it without these kids coming back every week. We enjoy having them, and they enjoy being here and playing and learning what they’re learning.”
The volunteers finally serve the mac ’n’ cheese, and when everyone’s done eating, the volunteers divide the kids into different age groups for short lessons. For the past couple of weeks, they’ve been learning about disease—a difficult topic, especially when there’s one disease in particular you have to confront.
A junior named Jakeb Watts is teaching the youngest group. “Who remembers last week when we talked about viruses?” he asks. “What is a virus?”
One little girl says, “HIV.”
As the kids get restless, Holli jumps in to help out. If someone in the room had AIDS, she says, “You won’t be able to get AIDS from just sitting next to her. It’s very hard to get AIDS.” She trails off. “Later on you will understand how to get it, but I don’t feel comfortable telling you.”
The volunteers are still learning how to talk about drugs and disease with such young kids, but they do it anyway. With everything going on in town, those topics are already in the kids’ lives.
It’s the kids that keep Chandler invested in his town, when he might otherwise check out. “I’m uplifted by what we’re doing,” he says. “Without all those kids smiling, saying they have a good time and coming back, this would just be exposing myself to more sadness that I don’t need.”
Chandler and Holli know it might be hard for Stand Up to live on after they go to college this fall, especially without a stable source of funding. But for now at least, the community is pitching in with small donations of money or snacks for the kids. And the seniors are recruiting younger volunteers like Jakeb to keep the effort alive.
The HIV crisis in Austin has been the subject of national media coverage and the focus of an intense emergency response. But people in this town know that changing the underlying problems in the long term needs to be a sustained, local effort. The volunteers with Stand Up want to be part of that.
“If [we] teach a child the right way to go or have a child look up to one of us,” says Holli, “and know that we are going to be there for them, then I accomplished my goal, because they’re the next generation. And if we spark hope for them, then we’re doing our jobs. That’s what the whole group was made for.”
As the evening draws to a close, the kids gather in a circle for a game of duck, duck, goose. Holli joins in. Round after round, they circle, tapping each other on the head, giving chase and giggling. Round after round, until it’s time to go.
The kids don’t want to leave.