March 15, 2005

HUG Me Teaches Kids About HIV

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“Help, Understand and Guide Me,” or HUG Me, is Cornell’s newest addition to the University’s state-wide initiative, “Talking With Kids About HIV/AIDS.” HUG Me, started by Ed Pettitt ’05 and other Cornell students and staff, enables discussion about HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases with children and young adults.

Participants work as an intergenerational link between parents and youth. Trainees are encouraged not to lecture but to educate and empower youths. The program encourages sexual education from infancy, teaching young children about their bodies and germs. After laying the groundwork at a young age, the education should continue until late teens.

While working as a volunteer HIV testing counselor at Gannett and actively volunteering at the Ithaca Youth Bureau, Pettitt began to realize the common concerns of children about sexual health.

“I noticed that a lot of the children in the [Big Brothers, Big Sisters] program had a lot of concerns about HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases,” Pettitt said.

Many of the involved students are in the College of Human Ecology, have been doing research projects about HIV/AIDS prevention education and had the desire to gain hands-on experience. Pettitt himself has worked as a volunteer HIV testing counselor at Gannett and spent last summer doing HIV/AIDS outreach in Malawi.

Beth Gancher ’05, the HUG ME Outreach Director, has spent quite a bit of time traveling and was amazed particularly by the problems with HIV/AIDS in Ghana. She also interned this past summer at an HIV/AIDS education program in New York City.

“I was inspired by what they were doing and thought the curriculum worked very well,” Gancher said.

Members of the program encourage students to take research about sexual health into the Ithaca community. They want to work directly with families, youth and youth workers.

“This is especially important because, at the same time as half of new HIV infections strike people under the age of twenty-five, county and state funding for local HIV prevention education programs has been cut back,” said Jennifer Tiffany, director of the Cornell HIV/AIDS Education Project.

HUG Me began training sessions this semester with student volunteers from Cornell’s branch of Big Brothers, Big Sisters. They are in the midst of working with people going on Alternative Breaks, a program than enables students to go on work trips during school vacations, conducting workshops in the Ithaca school system and training staff at the Ithaca Youth Bureau.

“There seems to be a big need for [sex education], even with audiences who think they know about it … Everyone always learns something new,” Gancher said.

Members of the program also hope that students at other schools will use HUG Me as a model to help children in their communities.

“Students have a special opportunity to document the development of this project so that it could be replicated by university students in other communities,” Tiffany said.

HUG Me is funded by the Robinson-Appel Humanitarian Award given to students with significant involvement in community service to provide support for community outreach programs. Pettitt received the award last spring.