At the age of 15, Ja’Niall Johnson is an advocate for community change. The student at Tarboro High School just completed a six-week Spoken Word program to teach him how to speak out on the subject of HIV/AIDS awareness.
“At first I didn’t think it affected me. Now I know that if people around me have it, it can affect me,” Johnson said. “Now that I learned all this stuff, I’ll go back on it when I face those tough decisions.”
Edgecombe County ranks number one in the state for HIV rates, with 10 new cases of HIV identified in the past fiscal year, from July 1, 2011 until June 30, 2012, according to the health department.
Johnson has had serious discussions with his friends about the ways in which HIV/ AIDS is transmitted and said he plans to start doing outreach in his church – St. Paul Missionary Baptist in East Tarboro.
“Even though he’s only 15, he’s really made some good choices about certain things out there,’ Johnson’s grandmother Cynthia Johnson said. After graduating from high school, Johnson plans to attend Duke University, with the ultimate goal of becoming a heart surgeon.
Clad in red, the color of AIDS awareness, Johnson shared his poem “HIV” with the audience at at Saturday’s Spoken Word Showcase at the Opportunities Industrialization Center in Rocky Mount:
“I used to think HIV was a joke, now I know that it’s nothing to play with, because once you have it, you’ll be falling off a cliff…I saw a teenage girl crying…I asked her what was wrong and she said she had contracted the disease because she wanted to please her own sexual emotions. Now she’s trapped with this disease called HIV and suddenly I felt like it was because of me. I started to wonder if it was her own fate that got her this eternal date with HIV or it was her own free will that got her this disease that will do anything to kill, but please don’t feel discouraged for the little girl, because although she has this disease, there’s a man who sits high and looks low.”
The Spoken Word project is an intervention to Project GRACE (Growing, Reaching, and Advocating for Change & Empowerment)’s “Teach One, Reach One” program, targeting health disparities in the minority population in Edgecombe and Nash Counties.
Also taking the stage at the showcase was Terry Thomas of Rocky Mount, urging audience members through spoken word to “Get Your Mind Right” and focus on “unity” as a solution to the community’s health problems. He said he wants to get everybody of “one accord” and spread the message about HIV/ AIDS prevention.
“Too many people aren’t really talking about it,” Thomas said. “You’ve got to get parents to teach their children about this.”
Reaching out to youth and getting them “on the right track” is Thomas’ goal.
“They need guidance, a good role model to talk to,” he said, commenting he would like to see more community centers where young people can come together. Thomas wants people to know that you don’t have to have a lot of money, or be eloquent in your speech, to make a difference. He has a speech impediment, but that didn’t stop him from standing up in front of an audience for the first time Saturday and sharing his message.
“This is my starting point – Rocky Mount, Tarboro. I want to go worldwide with it,” Thomas said.
Project GRACE is just one of the initiatives in Edgecombe County addressing the health concern of HIV/ AIDS. The county’s health department has a non-traditional site testing program to identify new cases and increase education and awareness. As part of the program, quarterly educational sessions and testing are offered at the Youth Development Center of Rocky Mount, a juvenile detention facility, and testing and counseling are offered to inmates at the county detention center on a bi-weekly basis. The program also does screenings at community functions, upon invitation.
From November 2010 to November 2012, a total of 980 people were tested for HIV and syphilis, including 613 inmates and 367 community members. The health department recently applied for an $89,915 HIV/ STD high impact prevention project grant to expand the outreach.
“We would be one of the first in the state to have this if we get this grant,” Karen Lachapelle, the county’s health director, told the board of health at its Tuesday evening meeting.
If the department receives the grant, it would have the capability of offering emergency department HIV and syphilis testing. Patients who visit Vidant Edgecombe Hospital’s emergency department considered to be in the “target population” would be notified of the opt-out testing practice. The target population would be men who have sex with men, intravenous drug users, patients who are Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD) symptomatic, or who have had contact with an HIV/AIDS or STD positive person.