By STEPHEN O’KANE, Staff Writer | Published August 21, 2008
With no official medical education or experience, Ainhoa Tollinche was admittedly a little nervous about how she would fit in as a speaker for the first Southeastern Conference of Catholic AIDS Ministers gathering held last week at the Simpsonwood retreat center.
But the subject of AIDS education, especially regarding youth in Catholic schools, turned out to be a hot topic and was well received by the crowd that gathered.
Hundreds of people came together in solidarity at the Methodist retreat center the week of Aug. 11 for the first HIV/AIDS conference put on by SECCAM. Those involved with AIDS ministry traveled from as close as the neighboring town of Lilburn to as far as Hawaii to participate in the discussion of many related topics on the disease.
Speakers included Dr. Kevin Fenton, director of the Division of HIV and AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; Msgr. Robert Vitillo, special advisor on HIV and AIDS to Caritas International; and Irene Miranda, director of the Office of HIV and AIDS Ministry for the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
The theme for the event was “God Entrusts Us to One Another,” and was chosen by the SECCAM planning team “as the maxim for this young organization, resounding as a constant reminder that each of us is responsible for the well-being of the people of God,” wrote the team in a welcoming letter to attendees.
Tollinche’s presentation came toward the end of the week, after those present had been given a wealth of information on the HIV/AIDS pandemic, including new statistics released by the CDC a couple of weeks prior and programs and efforts currently being pursued by the many ministries of the Catholic Church.
Tollinche, a graduate of Boston College and Florida International University, Miami, has been involved in AIDS ministry since September 2000 and recently finished her second year as a theology teacher at St. Brendan High School in Miami. She told the story of how she “accidentally” became involved with AIDS ministry in the Catholic school system.
Four students from St. Brendan’s wanted to start an extracurricular AIDS ministry group and, after a bit of a struggle to have it established, the final step was to find a faculty moderator. Tollinche was delighted to help the youngsters out.
“Little did I know on the other side of town, Dennis (Rausch) and Irene (Miranda) were preparing an AIDS education curriculum for Catholic schools,” Tollinche recalled to the crowd.
Armed with an informative PowerPoint presentation, Tollinche ran through the comprehensive four-year program she has been using with her students, explaining the mission of each year and sharing other activities in which the students participate.
The AIDS education program begins when the students enter high school. As freshmen, they attend an assembly with nearly 200 other students where Tollinche leads an approximately hour-long presentation covering basic knowledge of the disease, including the history, transmission and prevention information and current statistics.
As sophomores, the students again gather as an assembly to listen to a “retention” presentation, which runs through much of the same information in order to assist them in preserving what they have already learned. A non-graded pop quiz is distributed.
“They do this in a very concrete way,” Tollinche commented.
When the students come back as juniors, Tollinche addresses them in smaller groups, ranging from 25 to 60 students, to discuss treatment options as well as the realities and myths of the disease.
During this year she often uses “prayer pill bottles,” where she gives each student a sample schedule of medicines and then asks the students to fill a pill bottle with candy.
“Every time you take one of these ‘pills,’ I want you to say a prayer for someone who has to take these pills,” she tells the students, hoping they will get a glimpse of what it is like when HIV/AIDS begins to take over one’s life.
The final year features a two- to three-hour presentation in an even smaller classroom environment, and focuses on HIV/AIDS choices for young adults, responsible decision-making and the moral and emotional repercussions of premarital sex.
Tollinche also shared information with the attendees on the AIDS Awareness Club at St. Brendan High School, a voluntary, extracurricular service club that holds educational, service and fundraising projects each year.
The group holds two monthly meetings, the first to decide which service project they will do that month and the second to discuss AIDS-related articles, news events and statistics.
The AIDS Awareness Group has worked with several HIV/AIDS organizations such as Food for Life, AIDS Walk Miami, Dining Out for Life and the Genesis House.
In addition to reaching students, Tollinche also travels to church communities to give her basic freshman presentation to help raise awareness among those who know little or nothing about the disease.
Tollinche told the crowd that she is sharing this information so that others can use it. The best place to get information and strategies on how to help spread the awareness message are “right here” with all of the AIDS ministers from throughout the country, she said.
“Anybody here can do this work,” she said. “All it really takes is a desire to serve and love.”
While addressing young high school students is a necessary and important ministry, another group was represented at the SECCAM AIDS conference that focuses on the education of college-aged youth.
Kevin Kostic, justice education team leader for Catholic Relief Services, attended the conference with the CRS College Leaders HIV Action Team, which helps to educate college students through a variety of ways.
“The goal of the program is, through a Catholic lens, to raise awareness and reduce the stigma of HIV,” Kostic said in an interview.
More than 20 college students were present at the conference as part of the program, which is twofold.
The first focus is training, where students learn in-depth about HIV/AIDS on a global, national and local level, as well as what the Catholic Church’s response should be. The other focus is action-related. Students participate in AIDS awareness events on and off campus.
Katie Moore, a rising junior at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., joined the team last year and came back to serve as a captain for students participating in the program this year.
“It definitely impacted me my first year,” she said.
Moore has done AIDS-related work since she was in high school and heard about the CRS program through her AIDS work in Washington with FACE AIDS, a student campaign to fight AIDS in Africa.
Moore said it is encouraging that there are so many college kids who are “passionate about AIDS ministry.” She said the CRS program helps brings her hope to continue this important work.
“It really re-energizes you,” she said.
Alyssa Jocson, a rising senior at Seattle University, joined the CRS HIV Action Team for the first time this year. She has been involved with FACE AIDS for two years and worked with AIDS ministry since she was in high school.
While helping others abroad is very important to her, it was “really nice to get the local and national look” at the HIV pandemic in the United States at the SECCAM conference.
Like Moore, her Seattle classmate Ryan Arbow, who will also be a senior this year, returned to serve as a captain for the CRS group.
“It is important for us to keep talking,” said Arbow, commenting on how there seems to be more and more dialogue about AIDS within the Catholic community.
“All work with HIV/AIDS begins with education,” Tollinche said following her presentation.