In December 1998, Thor Cheston and Stephen Sobhani, both students at Georgetown University, volunteered at the hospital's Christmas party for its pediatric HIV/AIDS patients and their families. It changed their lives.
"We walked away from that thinking there is a whole different world out there that we don't know anything about," says Steve, 21, a senior. "It took only two hours out of our day to make these kids smile, and there's no excuse for us not to be doing a lot more."
"It was a shock," says Thor, 21, a junior. "Before, whenever I thought of AIDS, I never thought of children and how devastating it can be to children and their families."
"After the party, we started educating ourselves, and we realized that while the transmission for adults is lowered, the number of children being born with HIV has increased," Steve says. "The next question we asked ourselves is: 'What can we do?' "
During the summer, they came up with the idea of doing a bike ride from San Francisco to the District to raise money for the HIV/AIDS pediatric unit. They have called the bike ride "It's for the Kids," and they quickly set up a Web site, secured the backing of the department of pediatrics and established tax-exempt status. They faxed a letter to the White House Office of National AIDS Policy and within a day got a phone call from the director asking for a meeting.
"When we went," Steve says, "we realized that in a way, we broke this mold that everyone placed on university students and our generation in general being apathetic towards causes that aren't mainstream. They were impressed by what they called the unprecedented initiative we were taking. They said, 'What else are you going to do?' And we realized just raising money was not enough if we were going to address the situation to the best of our abilities.
"We also realized with this image of university students that we had to put together some sort of joint board of directors and board of advisors."
It's for the Kids has a board of directors of 10 students and a 15-member board of advisers that includes doctors, professors, lawyers, deans and social workers. A subcommittee manages a volunteer program for Georgetown students to work with the children, another manages the bike ride and another runs a pen-pal program, which was Steve's idea.
They found elementary schools along the route. "The kids we work with write letters to the kids at the schools" to start some sort of dialogue, Thor says. "In many of these cases, these children have never written a letter, much less received one."
On Sept. 25, It's for the Kids hosted a barbecue at the university, bringing the children to the campus. Among those attending was the Georgetown basketball team. The event, Steve says, "had a high degree of impact on campus and on the cause. Finally, people were able to put a face to the name. That's really important for university students, most of whom have not been accustomed to hearing about HIV/AIDS during their university careers. We haven't been educated on the virus since high school." As they educated themselves, they realized they were not fully aware of the dangers, a finding that prompted a peer-education program, which they hope to launch soon.
It's for the Kids snowballed in just a couple of weeks, Steve says, from an idea to four or five programs. The ride will be the culmination of an effort that has included awareness-raising, fund-raising and, perhaps most important, showing that their generation of students is not apathetic. The basketball team and head coach Craig Esherick have been big supporters, providing free tickets to take kids to games, as well as pompoms and T-shirts. The team has been "absolutely wonderful," Thor says. "It not for them, it would not have been possible."
"We've learned so much we can apply in life," he says. "We're learning a lot about ourselves. It's been the best experience for both Steve and I in our lives."
Twelve Georgetown students will start the 80-mile-a-day ride in San Francisco on June 1, aiming to make it to the District for the Fourth of July. They are hoping to raise $100,000 for Metro Teen AIDS, Grandma's House and Georgetown's pediatric infectious disease unit. A Georgetown documentary crew will film the trek.
These young people are doing something tremendously important, not only for the children with HIV/AIDS whom they have befriended but also for themselves and their generation. They've spent the past year showing that they can put together programs that are helping some of the neediest children in our midst. They've shown they are serious and have staying power. They deserve the support of our community.
They need high-grade road bikes that are durable and lightweight, for starters. They are hoping that hotels will donate lodging, but they need camping gear in case they have to sleep out. They'd like to have the sponsorship of a radio station so they can tell listeners where they are and how they're doing. They could use a PR firm. They need a van for the film crew. They need pledges. People can sponsor riders mile by mile, state by state, road by road.
Here are various ways to reach them: www.itsforthekids.org; 202-801-8849, a voice-mail paging system; via e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org; and It's for the Kids, c/o Georgetown University Medical Center, Department of Pediatrics, 2 PHC, 3800 Reservoir Rd., Washington, DC 20007.
We should all pitch in and support this effort and show these young people how much we admire what they are doing.