Tyler McElrath watched as his friend grew closer to her father in the waning moments of her father's life.
The relationship she shared with her dad didn't compare to the deep personal connection she had with her mother, but she spent as much time as she could with him during those final days when the AIDS virus attacked.
She couldn't bear to see him suffer.
"It was truly sad to see what she went through," said McElrath, a senior at Blake High.
Witnessing those tragic moments left an indelible impression on McElrath. It's one of the reasons he and other District 9 thespians in Hillsborough County will stage a special charity event Monday night at Blake called D9 Cares.
The event will allow young actors from seven high schools — Blake, Alonso, Carrollwood Day, Hillsborough, King, Plant and Riverview — to perform theatrical pieces they will take into this week's State Thespian Conference at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, which starts Thursday.
The deeper purpose, however, is to heighten awareness of AIDS and the HIV virus among high school students.
"It's always been looked at as an awful disease," McElrath said. "But when you know somebody who has been affected or you see it firsthand, it makes you want to cry and do everything you can to help. I feel there needs to be more done, more awareness. I think it's great that we're doing this because it really puts out the message to us that we need to be smart about our life choices, and it shows we have a big heart and want to help others."
McElrath said movies such as Dallas Buyers Club and plays such as The Normal Heart and Rent, performed at Blake two years ago, have made students more aware of AIDS. But he believes many don't see it as something that can impact them.
Well, listen up kids. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, young people aged 13–29 accounted for 39 percent of all new HIV infections in 2009. Compare that to the fact that people aged 15–29 comprised only 21 percent of the U.S. population in 2010.
The risk is especially notable for young gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men, but it's not limited to those groups. The CDC designated March 10 as National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, noting that in 2010, women and adolescent girls (aged 13 years and older) made up about one in four of the 1.1 million people living with HIV in the United States.
Hopefully, such awareness will reach the kids in attendance. Money raised by the second annual event will go toward an organization called Broadway Cares Equity Fights Aids. Former Blake student Emily Dimonaco sparked the inaugural fundraiser in 2013.
McElrath said this year's thespians, including officers in the Blake Thespian group (Mikey Reichert, Sky Ray, Hannah Pasch, Brycie Gauthier, James Rose, Haley Allen, David Friedman, Bailey DeVoe and Victoria Denis) are eager to increase attendance and build on the success of the first year.
Parents like me always sound the alarm about every virus, disease, pitfall and potential mistake as our adolescents venture into the world. But when the warning comes from their peers, teens are more apt to listen.
That's all I'm saying.