Teens Coping with HIV

Growing concern over the rise of HIV infections among teenagers has led to an increase in prevention messages. But for teens who are already infected with the virus, the AIDS Foundation of Houston is developing a special program to provide support. Houston Public Radio's Laurie Johnson reports.

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Nicole Tennyson is a tall, quiet girl with a shy smile. She's 17 years. When she was 12, she found out her mother had passed the virus to her during birth. She says for a long time she tried to pretend nothing was wrong.

"At first I saw how my mom was scared and got really sick because she wouldn't acknowledge it and I guess that's what made me stay in the closet because I saw my mom scared. And so my mom started taking the medicine and she's undetectable now and I really see more of her being comfortable with herself -- I'm comfortable with myself."

Most teens who are infected with HIV share a similar story to Nicole's. Infected at birth and raised with a knowledge of the illness and it's implications, they lead normal lives. But there's also a second group of teens with HIV. Kelly McCann, the CEO of AIDS Foundation Houston says they're seeing larger numbers of teens becoming infected through sex or needle sharing at young ages.

"And they have a misconception that HIV is no big deal. 'If I get it I'll just take the meds' you know I've actually heard young people say that. Rather than that real understanding of what kind of chronic illness this is."

Because HIV is such a life-changing illness, McCann and the AIDS Foundation developed something called Teen Leadership to help students cope with the disease.

"It's a chance for our youth to see that yes they do deserve jobs and education and happiness and sexual partners and perhaps marriage and even parenthood if that's what they choose. There are ways to achieve that, that are healthy and safe and productive and I think all of that can come about from Teen Leadership."

Last year was the first time the Foundation tried out the Teen Leadership program. This year they increased the number of teens in attendance, and expanded the program to include career counseling and mock interviews. But what the teens find most beneficial about the program, is simply being in a room with other people their own age who are dealing with the same life issues.

"Being here makes me feel comfortable because they feel like family. I don't have to hide, I don't have to express myself in a different way. It feels like home."

Laurie Johnson, Houston Public Radio News.

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