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“Yeah!”, I’m sure many of us have heard the classic American rap song with a similar opening line (“Peace UP, A-Town Down,” for those of you who missed Usher’s genius), but at The Grassroot Project we have coined our own remix; bringing knowledge and awareness to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in a unique and engaging way. DC’s HIV/AIDS epidemic, the highest in the United States, is not simply a far off issue happening “over there.” It is taking place right here in our nation’s capital, only blocks away from the offices of some of the most powerful decision makers in the United States and much of the world.

Over the past few years I’ve heard some pretty shocking and surprising comments regarding HIV, but one that really hit me happened recently as I struck up a conversation with a young man at one of the universities The Grassroot Project works with. When I told him that I work for an organization that does HIV/AIDS education here in DC, his response was “Wow, that’s so old school.” Old school, really? Although I was taken aback, I quickly interjected with a response explaining a bit more about the HIV epidemic in DC. This includes the fact that 1 in 20 people are infected with the virus and that 1 in 2 in the District know someone who is infected. Furthermore, at least 2.7% of adults/adolescents are living with HIV, which far exceeds the 1% rate that constitutes a “generalized and severe epidemic.” Now, I understand his response was not meant to be rude or demeaning in any way, but sadly I don’t think it is far off from how many Americans view the epidemic in DC and around the country. There simply is not enough education or conversation surrounding the issue, resulting in stigma, discrimination and a lack of knowledge to protect oneself and one’s community.

How are we, as a generation, going to respond? Stand back, ignore the facts, and act as if the issue doesn’t exist or it is too far gone for us to have any substantial effect? Absolutely not.

At The Grassroot Project, we recruit and train college athletes to be HIV/AIDS educators in D.C. middle-schools, working with kids roughly 12-14 years old. Grassroots implements 8-week sports based intervention programs as part of Physical/Health Education classes throughout D.C., and empowers students to spread awareness about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in their communities. We deliver key messages about HIV prevention and healthy life choices through fun and interactive games and discussions. This generation of student-athletes serves a unique role in providing young people in D.C. with the knowledge they need to protect themselves from HIV and live healthy lives, while also empowering these athletes to take action in their own communities and be a part of the next generation of global health advocates.

I was a college athlete, and fully understand the demands placed on our incredible volunteer student-athletes who have served as the foundation and backbone for Grassroots throughout the past 5 years. They endure crazy practice and game schedules, followed by hours of class and school work, which all need to be performed at an incredibly high level. Grassroots provides these athletes the opportunity to see beyond their sport, their school and their college community, while also joining the growing group of young people who will not have the excuse that we didn’t know about the virus or that we were too busy to act.

Since 2009, The Grassroot Project has worked in over 40 DC middle schools, trained over 400 university athletes, and reached nearly 2,000 youth. Still think the HIV/AIDS issue is too “old school” or that young people don’t care?

Great, we don’t either, and were doing something about it.