VALDOSTA -- More than 350 teenagers gathered at Mathis City Auditorium Friday to learn about HIV/AIDS and how it is continuing to affect and grow among the young adult population.

"Education has to be blunt, and we have to show them the truth and consequences," said Dr. Harold Katner, the keynote speaker from Macon. "We need to wake up society and bring it to the surface, and that's what we're doing here today."

Katner showed graphic photographs of the physical characteristics of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. The slide show was intended to give the students something to fear.

"The program was great," said 17-year-old A.J. Brown, a Lowndes High School student. "The pictures were terrible, and they taught me to practice abstinence."

Brown was accompanied by a friend, 15-year-old Joe Rogers, also a student at LHS. He said the message was the most informative part of the program, and he will walk away with more knowledge about HIV and AIDS.

"I came here today thinking I knew about the AIDS virus, but I learned that there's always room to know and learn more," Rogers said.

Not only did Katner's speech, "Reality Based AIDS Education Program," provide the teenagers interesting facts about AIDS and HIV, it also included a story about a family he knew who suffered from AIDS. The story touched several students and caused some to cry.

"After seeing and hearing what happened to that family really made me think," said Atavia Jackson, 15-year-old Brooks County High School student. "I know I don't want that so I'll practice abstinence and safe sex."

In addition to Katner, Randall Godfrey, linebacker for the San Diego Chargers, gave words of encouragement. He explained that AIDS is not limited to big cities and it does not discriminate.

"It's not just in California," Randall Godfrey said. "It's in Valdosta, and it's real. Kids need more education on this and how important it is to show that they are our future."

"I think it had a good impact on the younger kids because he's a role model telling us about AIDS, and he is someone people want to be like," said 17-year-old Alisa McCall, Brooks County High School student.

Godfrey was not the only one serving as a motivator. Eric and Dexter Sharper provided entertainment and words of encouragement through singing gospel songs from Dexter Sharper's new CD, "He Made a Way." Also, the Mildred Hunter Center's Drill Team performed, and AKA supplied lunch and refreshments.

Considering this was the first time an AIDS workshop was held for young teenagers, the turnout was pleasant, said Gene Godfrey, District Public Health Nursing and Clinical Director for district 8, unit 1.

The program was sponsored by the South Health District, which partnered with the City of Valdosta, Valdosta-Lowndes Park and Recreation, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and the Public Health Department. "A Defensive Stand Against HIV/AIDS" was geared toward teenagers 13 and older.

Gene Godfrey plans to work closely with the schools next year to change the way the program was implemented to gain more participation.

"We're trying to prevent the spread of HIV starting at a young age," Gene Godfrey said. "Our greatest weapon against AIDS for this age group is awareness. Hopefully this awareness will aid in modifying behavior for those in high risk."

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