NEW YORK — Busybodies were the topic at a recent meeting of parents of children at a Bronx day-care center.
Busybodies are the relatives who wonder why Janie is sick so often, the people at church who remark that Billy hasn't been there much lately. They're the women at the bus stop who ask how they can get their children into this city-funded child-care program that picks up its students and delivers them home, that serves hot meals, that has four students to every teacher and that provides regular medical attention.
The answer is simple: All you have to do is have a child with AIDS.
As in the game of hide-and-seek, "this place serves parents as a home-free-all," said Carolyn Lelyveld, director of the Day Care Center at the Bronx Municipal Hospital Center. "A place where they can stop hiding and even joke."
As for the 22 children currently enrolled in the 20-month-old program, "it's about quality of life," said Barbara Weiss, the center's full-time registered nurse.
"A kind of safe haven," added pediatrician Dr. Henry Adam, the specialist in children's chronic illnesses who helped start what is thought to be the country's only day-care facility for children with acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
A report based on a statewide study of all infants born in November and issued this week showed that one in 61 babies born in New York City that month carried antibodies to the AIDS virus. In the Bronx, home to all the children at the day-care center, the figure was one in 43. Calling AIDS a leading threat to infant health in New York City, the study projected that nearly all the 1,000 babies born this year infected with the virus will be born in New York City.
"From our point of view, the numbers do not have to be this large for us to feel that we are important and that we are doing something that is very useful," Lelyveld said. "We certainly know that the numbers are growing, and they're growing in a disturbing way, and there are a lot of mothers or mothers-to-be who are at risk out there."
At the day-care center, the atmosphere is cheerful, filled with the children's colorful paintings and scattered with toys and educational play projects, including a miniature city of high-rises that the children have constructed out of cereal and toothpaste boxes. One morning, the air in what was once a tuberculosis ward was filled with the aroma of fresh pancakes, that day's make-it-together breakfast project.
In the big, sunny waiting room, the long-awaited arrival of a shipment of toys and educational supplies provoked curiosity and eager hands sifting through the cache of treasures. Thinking it might be a Christmas replay, 6-year-old Jocelyn (not her real name) asked, "Are they presents? Do they have names on them?" Like many of her classmates, Jocelyn is small for her age, but bright, alert and blessed with a huge and ready smile. But her voice is husky, betraying the thick, wheezing quality that often accompanies pediatric AIDS.
While most children tackled educational play projects, some slept in nurseries equipped with cribs and a healthy assortment of stuffed animals. One child, fussy this morning, clung to the arms of teacher Gary Fishman. Often, Fishman said, "There is a lot of acting-out behavior" among the children. "There's a lot more teacher intervention needed here."
Out in the hall, one of the older children, Rosalie, hands on tiny hips, was firmly asserting herself in a standoff with another teacher. One day, Lelyveld said, one of the students decided she had had enough day care, thank you, and calmly put on her coat and hat to leave for home--hours before the school was scheduled to be dismissed. "We stopped her," Lelyveld said, laughing.
AIDS, though not a banned subject, is seldom discussed or mentioned. "If a kid has a bloody nose, it's just a bloody nose, not an AIDS bloody nose," teacher Alwyn Thomas said.
Children Are Shielded
Except perhaps for the older, more sophisticated children--and even they do not talk about it--the students here are not likely to know what AIDS is, much less that they suffer from it. Skipping about the halls like students at any other preschool, the children are protected, shielded from journalists, photographers and other outsiders who might clumsily mention their condition. (The Times was allowed to observe the children, but not allowed to interview them or their families.)
"It's not something we ask, and it's not something we talk about," Lelyveld said. "We talk about being in the hospital, and being sick, and these kids all know they are sick from time to time."
They study ambulances in their educational curricula, and in play therapy, said social worker Naomi R. Buchanan. "The kids are always hooking up i.v.'s, things like that."
Within the comforting walls of the center, Buchanan said, "they are different, and they know they are different, but here it's an acceptable kind of difference, and they can live with it."