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OC HIGH: STUDENT NEWS & VIEWS : Volunteers for Life : Teens Donate Their Time to Alleviate the Suffering and Ignorance Surrounding the Deadly AIDS Crisis

September 23, 1993|TRISHA GINSBURG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Trisha Ginsburg, a recent graduate of Los Alamitos High School, is a regular contributor to OC High.

Suffering is nothing new to Aimee von Guenthner.

The Santa Margarita High School senior dealt with a brain tumor and subsequent surgery in April, 1991. She has also witnessed the ongoing deterioration of her grandfather from Alzheimer's disease.

It was while recuperating from surgery that Von Guenthner, 17, saw an AIDS telethon on the hospital TV. To her, it portrayed the greatest suffering of all.

"Death is common out in the world," Von Guenthner said. "Everyone is dying . . . but there is a difference between suffering alone and sharing that suffering with somebody. I had people visiting me in the hospital, and it wasn't fair that the people they were showing on the telethon were suffering alone."

She called the 800 number broadcast on the telethon and was referred to Laguna Shanti, a nonprofit agency in Laguna Beach that, in conjunction with other county groups, provides emotional support and practical assistance to persons affected by HIV and other life-threatening illnesses.

Shanti means "inner peace" in Sanskrit and is based upon the Eastern idea of "developing an inner sense of peace. It has come to mean a place that will provide a helping hand," said Stephen Coppola, president of the Shanti board of director.

Volunteers provide transportation for hospital and doctor visits, housekeeping services and massage, as well as emotional assistance from home and hospital visits or as support buddies. Volunteers also deliver Meals on Wheels to housebound patients.

The hours worked by students can be applied toward community service requirements at their schools.

Ahmad Alhamad, 18, began as a volunteer soon after graduating last June from Corona del Mar High School. AIDS, he said, is "a big problem, and I thought it would be more interesting to work with something that I can learn more about. There is so much ignorance out there about HIV infection and AIDS."

All new volunteers must attend an orientation, held monthly, to learn about their jobs. If they want to get actively involved with the patients and become a support buddy, they must take a three-day AIDS 500 information course, administered through the AIDS Response Program in Garden Grove. And there are quarterly education seminars that give volunteers the opportunity for discussion, role playing and networking with other volunteers.

The student volunteers "are learning a tremendous amount about AIDS and about the entire epidemic," Shanti director Sarah Kasman said. "The goal for us is to expose teen-agers to the disease of the '90s and to show them, through working with people, that AIDS is much more far-reaching than it ever has been and that everybody can be, at some point in time or another, vulnerable to it."

Von Guenthner's first job at Shanti showed some of that vulnerability: She helped a man in his 30s change residences.

"I could see that he was waiting for me to reject him when I found out he has AIDS," she said. "When he realized I was going to stick around, he changed. It was the greatest reward, being able to have this man open up and see him realize that I wasn't going to turn on him. That's what keeps bringing me back to Shanti: A lot of these people are alone because their families and friends have turned on them."

Von Guenthner has far exceeded the 80 hours of community service required for her high school graduation, but she has no intention of stopping her volunteer work.

"AIDS is this out-there, abstract, I-don't-know-anybody-who-has-it, it's-not-going-to-affect-me disease," Shanti's Kasman said. "All of a sudden, by walking into an agency like this, you put a face to the disease. You hear the life stories of people; you hear the struggles; you hear the triumphs of people's lives. The teen volunteers are trained to deal with these emotions."

"There's a lot of prejudice against people with AIDS," Alhamad said. "One of my friends said that if his best friend had AIDS, he wouldn't talk to him anymore, because he thinks he can catch AIDS by shaking hands with somebody. A lot of people, when they heard I'm doing community service for AIDS, automatically assumed I'm homosexual. I thought that was really ignorant."

Von Guenthner has experienced much of the same. "A lot of people think I'm crazy because they think I'm going to get AIDS by volunteering at the Shanti," she said. "I give basic facts and information to those people.

"It's a worldwide topic," she continued. "A lot of people think, 'There's no cure, so why pursue it?' But the more we educate, the more we cure the ignorance. Education is a type of cure."

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