According to the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research one third of Grade 11 students in Canada don’t know AIDS is incurable. Toronto’s United Youth Initiative (UYI) seeks to change that on Dec 1 — World AIDS Day — by mobilizing hundreds of young people as peer educators in a project called One Million Red Ribbons.
“We’re committed to working with our own hands to effect change and raise awareness about pressing social issues in our own communities,” says Justin Lee, one of UYI’s members.
In addition to organizing larger projects, UYI holds regular “mousetrap meetings” — named after an icebreaking activity at one of their early meetings — at which members volunteer all across the GTA.
One Million Red Ribbons is the brainchild of 18-year-old Ryan Tremblay, UYI’s founder, who has been working on HIV/AIDS issues since he was in high school.
“I did a survey at my school and I found out only two percent of students knew the difference between HIV and AIDS,” says Tremblay. “That really shocked me and the more I looked into it the more I realized how many people believe incorrect information. That was a call to action.”
One Million Red Ribbons has been organized and planned entirely by Canadian youth, with the help of organizations like LOFT Community Services and the AIDS Committee of Toronto. Toronto is the project’s launch pad; next year UYI hopes to roll it out to cities with high HIV-prevalence rates across North America.
“The idea is to spread awareness in a simple way that can change lives,” says Tremblay. “[To hand out] one million red ribbons is the goal.”
Some 200 volunteers will aim to hand out 100,000 ribbons in Toronto’s public spaces and schools on Mon, Dec 1 from 8:30am until 3:30pm, when youth will pin special ribbons on Toronto mayor David Miller and openly gay city councillor Kyle Rae at a press conference at City Hall. These ribbons are made from the bed sheets of HIV positive people at McEwan House, a supportive housing facility for people living with HIV/AIDS.
“One of the myths around HIV/AIDS is that you can contract HIV just by touching an object that an HIV-positive person has touched,” says Lee. He hopes that the image of these bed-sheet ribbons being pinned on Miller and Rae will inspire people to question other HIV/AIDS myths.
In addition to handing out ribbons youth will participate in two seminars, with interactive content provided by TakingITGlobal, so they can share information about HIV/AIDS with their peers. Planned Parenthood will also run a rapid HIV-testing clinic for young people all day long.
“The education system has failed to educate the next and current generations about the dangers of HIV/AIDS,” says Lee. “One third of Grade 11 students do not know there is no cure for HIV/AIDS and around 40 percent of them have reported having vaginal intercourse. That should convey the dire state of our education programs.”
The lack of education in Canada’s schools inspired Tremblay to design this program so that youth could learn from one another. But there are other reasons, he says, why it is crucial to educate young people in particular about HIV/AIDS.
“It’s so important that young people understand this pandemic because they’re the ones that are going to carry it into the future, and have the most potential to be affected by it.
“We don’t know yet what this project can do, but we’re hoping we can move young people to protect themselves and to go into their communities and eliminate stereotypes and make them a better place for HIV-positive people to live in.”