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Long Beach expert on AIDS education uses delicate but direct style to replace fear with fact.

June 18, 1987|WILLIAM NOTTINGHAM | Times Staff Writer

When Sunny Haberman talks about telling her own children, the audience is always surprised. "It really helps," she said, "because I don't say it until the very end . . . I think it's important that people know I practice what I preach."

What Haberman preaches is all about AIDS--to the Lions Club, the Rotary, city workers, federal agents, church groups, aerospace engineers. And her sermons are no less blunt at home than on the job.

At more than 200 meetings over the past 18 months, she has been the Long Beach Public Health Department's traveling expert on how to cope with the deadly epidemic. At a fruit-cup-and-quiche breakfast with business leaders or on a late-night tour of hooker haunts with the police vice squad, she uses the same delicate but direct style to replace fear with fact, always stressing that even if acquired immune deficiency syndrome can't be cured, it can be controlled by changes in sexual habit.

This month Haberman's job enters a new phase, as the Health Department's $70,000 AIDS education program changes its emphasis. Where the program previously had sent Haberman to talk to any community group seeking a speaker, now the focus will shift to training key members of organizations and local groups so they can carry the message to their peers.

"We no longer will be calming people's fears, the focus now will be on . . . identifying key groups and going to them, then training" people so they can "be in-house experts," she said. "The emphasis will be on risk reduction, how the disease is transmitted."

Haberman said the new approach will have a "pyramid effect, be much more cost-effective." In addition, the program will continue to reach out to people practicing high-risk behavior, like illegal drug users who share needles and people who engage in frequent sexual intercourse without condoms.

But though the program will change emphasis, much of the message and Haberman's approach will remain the same.

As an AIDS educator, "In a way, I'm a role model," the 37-year-old Haberman says. So during her talks--after she wades through a slide presentation of basic terms, gets past the dark statistics and lingering myths, tells how the AIDS virus is transmitted mostly through sexual intercourse and not by way of "eating utensils, coffee pots, shaking hands, water coolers, door knobs, saliva, sweat, hugs"--she carefully brings up her children, two boys ages 10 and 12.

"I brought home a video and condoms," she says, green eyes unblinking beneath circles of bushy brown hair. "I've had them hold condoms, I've shown them the different kinds . . . .

"I've taken it out of the package and I've shown them how you pinch the end of it to get the air bubble out and you roll it down onto the penis. Of course, I tell them the best protection against AIDS is abstainance, but if they're going to engage in sexual activity before they're married they have to wear a condom."

"I don't think children are ever too young to have the information about sexuality," Haberman says, "because we are sexual beings." Surgeon General C. Everett Koop has said that AIDS education, in some basic form, should begin in kindergarten. "If we as adults have information that can save the lives of our young children then we owe it to our young children to educate them. This is a deadly disease."

Haberman, a single parent, tired of teaching elementary school a few years ago and began seeking a master's degree in community health education from California State University, Long Beach. She joined the city Health Department in 1985 after gaining experience with the Los Angeles County venereal disease hot line. She saw the AIDS education program as "a wonderful opportunity" to help fashion the public's response to a frightening killer.

She decided to begin at home.

"I started teaching (my boys about sex) when they were young so that they would be open to me, so that we would have an open line of communication," Haberman said in a recent interview. "What the research shows is that children who are informed about sex and sexuality delay their first sexual encounter . . . It's the children who have the open communication with their parents who make the best decisions."

Children who are left to learn about sex through peers, she said, "usually have inaccurate information. And that perpetuates the myths."

So it is that teen-agers are Haberman's most attentive audience when she lectures in schools or at youth organizations.

"They are like sponges. They are hungry for accurate information." Her toughest days come when dealing with community service workers--police officers, firefighters, paramedics and hospital attendants fearful of coming in contact with the infected blood of an AIDS carrier injured in an accident or altercation.

Business people worry most about state law, she said. A person who has the AIDS virus cannot be legally fired because of that, and employers are not allowed to ask if a job applicant is infected.

But for audiences concerned strictly about themselves and their families, Haberman makes her point about condoms--the safest way of having sex--in the most casual yet convincing way she can.

"Usually that's the hit of the presentation," she said, "because when I say, 'Everyone has to carry condoms. Men have to carry condoms and women have to carry condoms,' at that point I usually whip one out of my pocket."

Once the giggles subside, Haberman said, she explains the need "to desensitize people," to get past the social stigma that condoms have carried, so they will be accepted as a fact of life.

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