Person Of The Week2: Tyler Spencer
Setting up an educational programme to promote AIDS awareness is a laudable achievement in itself but to do it on the back of credit card debt shows courage as well as conviction.
Tyler Spencer did exactly that in Washington DC after spending two summers volunteering in South Africa, where he helped set up HIV prevention programmes in diamond mining communities.
Realising that his home town also suffered from an HIV problem - one in 20 people in DC are infected with the virus - Spencer set about establishing a similar organisation that could help educate at-risk youth in the community and so The Grassroot Project was born, albeit with minimal backing.
"We started in 2008 but couldn't get funds," Spencer recalls. "So I ended up financing the organisation on my credit card. I went into credit card debt but then I managed to get people to donate things such as office space and footballs.
"Not having access to funds is very dificult for young people. As a 22-year-old it was difficult for me but it would be even more difficult for, say, a child of a sex worker in India who wants to set up a programme."
He didn't have to wait too long though as MTV came with finance through its Staying Alive Foundation and the relationship with the broadcaster has thrived ever since. Spencer is currently involved with MTV's unique event for World AIDS Day, Shuga Talks, in which two simultaneous screenings of MTV's AIDS-related drama will be shown in Washington DC and Nairobi on 1 December. A live video discussion engaging viewers from around the world follows the programme and will be streamed live. Twitter users can also follow the conversation at #shugatalks.
The Grassroot Project's mission is to use sports as the tool in HIV/AIDs awareness education and as a keen athlete - Spencer has cycled across America, competed as a Division 1 athlete in rowing and coached the United States Deaf Tennis Team - he is drawing on a range of skills to help spread the message. The Project's curriculum focuses on creating a fun and safe environment for young people where they can learn about healthy lifestyles and share feelings and beliefs, increase their knowledge, and develop healthy attitudes and behaviours relating to HIV and AIDS through games and activities.
"We provide role model - athletes - who the kids can look up to," Spencer says.
The Grassroot Project's founder admits he fell into AIDS campaigning by accident. At college he was studying Environmental Science and had never left the USA until he got the chance to go to South Africa. It was there that his world changed.
"I was staying with a friend in South Africa who was rung up one night by an ex-girlfriend to tell him she was HIV-positive. It was a moment of real shock for me. Somehow Environmental Science didn't seems quite as relevant as HIV. There was a real stigma attached to it, people would kill themseves rather than go to hospital."
The stigma around HIV that Spencer found in South Africa is still prevalent today in his home town and is something which, along with a lack of information, prevents people from getting tested.
"In Johannesburg, there were many organisations focusing on HIV but only one in DC," he says. "That's a huge gap. Kids have no information in spite of the high rates of infection... and they're scared to find out because they're worried what their parents, their school and their friends will think."
Spencer admits he was shocked at the high rates of HIV infection in Washington DC and is convinced that many deaths could have been avoided if people had had regular check ups by their doctors or were tested but again he returns to the barrier that dominates our discussion - stigma. One of the primary aims of The Grassroot Project is to break down such barriers, to get people talking, and as he says in conclusion, "to change the way the new generation talks about the disease."