It’s amazing to think I’ve known Jodie Howerton and her husband Mike for almost 9 years now. Mike was one of the pastors on staff at my wife’s church when we first met, did part of our premarital counselling, baptized me and dedicated our firstborn son. Over the years we loved getting to know them and their family better; carving pumpkins in their living room, and even crashing their Easter dinner when we were back in town one year. I was also honored to work with Mike on producing artwork for several Christmas services, one of which was turned into a book. They’re a very special family to us.
I could not be prouder of Jodie’s latest project, where she and the family are courageously taking on how public education handles teaching our children about HIV/AIDS. I’ve asked her if I can share her story, and I hope you will watch the video above, read what she has to say below, and find a way to get involved.
I’m prepared to fight for my son’s right to live in the light.
Several years ago, when my oldest was in 5th grade, I previewed the HIV/AIDS video that our local public school uses to fulfill state educational mandates. The video was produced in the 1980’s (might have had an update in the early 90’s), was incredibly fear based, and contained very outdated information about the virus.
I was stunned. In most other ways, I’ve been very impressed with the curriculum our school district utilizes. The video featured newspaper headlines that read, “Thousands Die of AIDS” and even spliced in a shot of the grim reaper at one point. To illustrate how HIV attacks the immune system, the video used abstract concepts related to baseball that even I, as an adult, was confused by. Then there was the personification of HIV as a red monster.
My 8-year old son, Duzi, is HIV positive.
He is not scary and he is not contagious. He takes a regimen of anti-retroviral medication every day and has an undetectable viral load. He is not a threat to anyone.
The information in the video was scary. Those without additional information would be afraid of my son after watching it. Afraid of my son – a “normal” (whatever that means!) kiddo who plays soccer, basketball, and baseball, does karate, and is a talented hip-hop dancer. Afraid of my son who is a human being that defies stereotype. He is a survivor and simultaneously, a student that loves and reads the Magic Treehouse series. Just like your kids.
The video I previewed perpetuated stigma, the terrible stigma that still criminalizes HIV positive individuals, even when they adhere to their medication and have an undetectable viral load. The chances of transmission are seriously almost moot (if you consider 1 in a million via sexual intercourse moot, even less if blood outside of the body is involved- I TOTALLY do) when HIV viral loads get to undetectable – meaning HIV can’t be detected in the blood.
Back to my preview of the public school video resources:
When the video ended, my head was spinning, blood rushed to my face, and my hand shot up. Why, I demanded, was this video being shown at all? Wasn’t there something else produced in this century that we could show instead? The poor teacher showing the video was simply utilizing a resource that had been approved by our district, and by our state. I then complained to the principal and to the school nurse, who put me in contact with the Health Coordinator at the school district.
The Health Coordinator was incredibly kind and helpful. She admitted that the video was outdated and together, we searched for replacement videos – for an entire year. We found nothing appropriate for the public school setting. And I really mean nothing.
Don’t just criticize. Create.
So, I decided to make some new videos. With the collaboration of the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction in Washington State, physicians from Seattle Children’s Hospital, and fundraising help from Seattle Children’s Hospital Foundation, I’m creating a series of four brand new video resources for 5th grade, 6th grade, middle school and high school students.
These videos will be available FREE OF CHARGE to any school district in the nation that wants them.
Utilizing a documentary format that features a “day in the life” of an HIV positive person, the videos will contain medically and scientifically accurate information and will focus on reducing the devastating social stigma still associated with the disease. Students will understand the truth about prevention and transmission, and will feel compassionate, not fearful.
Of course, given the nature of education budgets in states across our nation, there is not any funding available for these videos. We need to raise $150,000 to create all four videos. We’ve launched a fundraising campaign on Indiegogo to help us create the first video.
A collective family decision to share.
Before you go to Indiegogo, I need you to know how much thought, discussion, and prayer went in to my family’s decision to disclose Duzi’s status so openly. Up until now, we have only disclosed his positive status on an individual basis. We have never believed that HIV is something to be ashamed of. We have never communicated to Duzi that he has something to hide or be embarrassed of. Never. We have so normalized HIV in our home, that we actually rarely discuss it any more. Every morning, Duzi takes his HIV meds, I take my thyroid meds, Caleb takes his acid reflux meds, and Alex takes her iron supplement. It’s no big deal.
We started to realize sometime in the middle of last school year that more people knew about Duzi’s HIV status than we thought. Unfortunately, even though HIV status is protected under federal privacy laws, moms at the bus stop, parents at athletic events, and well-meaning people in our church like to chat about “secret” things. We realized that we were not in charge of the information people were communicating to one another about our son’s health. People that knew about Duzi’s status didn’t know that we knew that they knew and so were not coming to us directly to ask questions. We had no idea what myths were being perpetuated.
We’ve decided, with Duzi’s input, with my other kids’ input, with perspective from our community of positive families, and with counsel from friends who know us well, to disclose openly.
Secrets have much more power than truth. We desperately want Duzi to live free of the burden of secrecy and shame; I have no doubt that open disclosure will have some consequences. I have no doubt that we will encounter ignorance and prejudice But, at least we will know about it.
And, I’m prepared to fight for my son’s right to live in the light.
We have 30 days to raise money for our “Redefine Positive” campaign on Indiegogo. Would you consider contributing?