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ASU students raise AIDS awareness through art

Students could paint whatever they wanted as long as they included a red ribbon
December 05, 2014

On World AIDS Day, Dec. 1, activities around the globe are aimed at raising awareness about HIV/AIDS. While talking about the disease is often difficult, organizers of an outreach event this week at Arizona State University made it easier through art.

The ASU Chapter of HEAL International, a non-profit organization that provides health education and health-related services to communities in Arizona and Africa, created “Paint for Peace” – an event designed to engage students and spark conversations.

“This event is about raising awareness and reducing stigma – getting people involved in an event they normally wouldn’t be involved in,” said HEAL’s program coordinator and School of Life Sciences alumna Mia Wright. “People aren’t always comfortable talking about AIDS, and I think opening up that door through something like painting is easier and fun.”

Paint for Peace is one of the organization’s biggest events. Canvases are set up on Hayden Mall and students are invited to paint whatever they want – as long as a red ribbon is included to recognize the AIDS epidemic.

According to Wright, as many as 500 students participate each year in the painting event, and many take advantage of the educational offerings and HIV testing. Wright said she’s seen the event have a positive impact on students over the years, citing one occasion where someone tested positive for HIV and could then seek the needed treatment.

HEAL International was founded eight years ago by School of Life Sciences faculty associate Damien Salamone and professor Bert Jacobs after the two returned from a trip to Tanzania, Africa, where they spent weeks teaching locals about the AIDS epidemic.

“Damien, who was a graduate student then, came back and said, ‘I really need to do something to make things better there,’” said Jacobs, now interim director of the school. “That started the idea to train students to go over there and make a difference.”

Since then, the organization has evolved to do more than send students to resource-limited communities in Africa. Today, volunteers are out in the Arizona community on a weekly basis offering health education to at-risk youth, among other activities.

The painting event is about commemorating those who were lost to the disease while using art as a bridge to include the community, according to Salamone. He added that the canvases painted in memory of a victim of AIDS are stitched together and donated to the NAMES Foundation’s national AIDS Memorial Quilt.

“We really hope participants walk away a bit more educated about AIDS, and that they become part of the community through the event,” Salamone said. “We see people come paint, take a picture with their canvas and then share that with friends and family through sites like Facebook. That’s the element we’re looking for – taking a stand for HIV and AIDS awareness.”

Strengthening a connection between HEAL International and the NAMES Foundation is the fact that both are connected to the late Austin Jones, emeritus psychology professor at ASU. Jones’ son Cleve started the NAMES Foundation, while both Jacobs and Salamone have taught the microbiology class Jones launched years ago – HIV/AIDS: Science, Behavior and Society.

Whether it’s done through painting a picture, teaching a class or lending a hand to people half way around the world, ASU and HEAL International continue to make a difference in the fight against AIDS.

The School of Life Sciences is an academic unit in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.