On World AIDS Day, Projects at Lehman College Aim to Help as Well as Inform

World AIDS Day tomorrow (December 1) has added meaning this year at Lehman College, where work is under way to help those affected by the disease in South Africa, which has the largest number of people living with HIV/AIDS in the world.

Supported by a $367,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Craig Demmer of the Health Sciences faculty is working to develop ways of helping parents, siblings and caregivers there cope with the death of a child from AIDS. As a health educator, social worker and thanatologist, he has more than 20 years of experience in AIDS, mental health and end-of-life care.

Over the next two years, Dr. Demmer and his research team will interview children and parents/caregivers in the province of KwaZulu-Natal and evaluate the benefits of a bereavement support intervention. Staff and volunteers at the Open Door Crisis Center, a community-based organization in the region, will be involved in the study, as well as residents of the surrounding rural communities.

“Our goal,” he said, “is to develop a psychosocial intervention that will reduce levels of depression and psychological distress suffered by family members and increase their coping abilities.” In 2004, he conducted an initial study of AIDS-related bereavement in the same region. A key challenge, he adds, will be developing an intervention that can be easily implemented in all types of communities in Africa, especially those with limited resources and few mental health professionals.

“This grant shines the spotlight on families and children who are going through multiple trauma and extreme hardship,” he explains, “and is a first step toward acknowledging their loss and their circumstances. We want to show that there is support available and hope for the future for both children and adults during these difficult times.”

Students in his “Perspectives on AIDS” course joined the effort by holding bake sales and other drives that raised funds for the Hillcrest AIDS Centre, also in KwaZulu-Natal. “Their effort raised not only money but also AIDS awareness,” he said.

At the same time, events sponsored by the Student Health Center will raise awareness in other ways:

  • Two panels from the original AIDS Memorial Quilt will be displayed December 3-6 in the Art Gallery. Begun in 1987, the quilt in its entirety consists of 40,000 colorful panels, each measuring three feet by six feet, and is the largest ongoing community arts project in the world.
  • On December 5, an HIV-positive woman will share her story with the Lehman community, an event arranged through “Love Heals,” the Alison Gertz Foundation for AIDS Education.
  • The three best submissions in the College’s annual World AIDS Day Poster Contest will be displayed on campus and on the Student Health Center’s website.

“We hope these activities will encourage students to take a moment out of their busy day to reflect on the impact of this epidemic,” said Cindy Kreisberg, director of the Student Health Center.

Media Contact: Marge Rice / 718-960-4992