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Program fights HIV by educating teenagers

By Allyson Bird
Office of Development and Alumni Affairs

They stay late after school to share a few snacks and an important conversation: why the small city of North Charleston ranks 29th in the country for HIV and AIDS cases.

EMPOWERR stands for Ethnic Minority Preventative Outreach and Web-based Education for Risk Reduction. Put simply, the MUSC-run program tries to reach teenagers when they’re listening – through peers and social media.

Stall High's EMPOWERR group takes students' anonymous questions and answers them on video, with input from MUSC nurses.

Program director Dr. Carla Kmett Danielson started EMPOWERR with grant funding from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in 2008. “There are some outstanding services for HIV-positive people, but the prevention piece was really lacking,” she said.

The only obstacle was getting the target audience in the door. “We have wonderful services we can provide,” Dr. Danielson explained, “but you realize that kids are not necessarily lining up with their hands in the air saying, ‘I’d like some HIV prevention.’”

That’s where MUSC’s Yearly Employee Support Campaign came in. Thanks to contributions from MUSC employees made through the YES Campaign, health educators can bring snacks and prizes when visiting students after school.

“Grants do not allow us to buy food, but the YES Campaign has allowed us to do that,” Dr. Danielson said. “It sounds silly, but we really do need to be able to buy pizza.”

Pizza, she said, brings teenagers in. The message keeps them around. A few kids at Stall High School in North Charleston committed to EMPOWERR’s advisory board, and they serve as ambassadors for the program – and for making good choices.

“I like the whole premise of it,” said Mercedes Blackwell, a 17-year-old junior and EMPOWERR advisory board member. “We have fun here, and we have meaningful conversations.”

Josh Kirnon, a 17-year-old senior, first became involved with EMPOWERR through its Making Proud Choices program for young men. He plans to study business administration at Johnson & Wales University in the fall and joined the EMPOWERR advisory board in the meantime

“My favorite part was meeting the people who operate the group,” Josh said.

He and Mercedes number among the more than 300 Charleston County teenagers who have completed educational programs through EMPOWERR. Of those teenagers, only 62 percent reported practicing safe sex before they participated in the program – but 85 percent reported using protection after EMPOWERR.

One recent afternoon at Stall High School, program coordinator April Borkman and health educator Nicole Fortune converted a high school classroom into a safe space for confidential conversation with a girls-only group. They laid pink cloths across rows of desks and set up chips, cookies, fruit snacks and drinks, while a teacher ran out to intercept one student before she went home on the bus.

April and Nicole led their discussion that day by sharing magazine photos and playing rap songs and then asking how they portray women. The women wanted the girls to think about what they value.  One girl wondered aloud, “Can you value yourself?”

“I hope so,” Nicole said.” That’s the whole point of this group.”