Ceremony lauds AIDS activist

New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. hosted a ceremony at Wilbur Cross High School Thursday to celebrate the life and activism of AIDS victim Ryan White and his family. White contracted HIV from a tainted blood transfusion when he was 13 years old and became a leading figure in the fight against discrimination towards HIV/AIDS patients.

Jeanne White-Ginder, White’s mother and also an HIV/AIDS activist, was the keynote speaker of the ceremony which included a tree planting and the dedication of a memorial plaque. She discussed the challenges and lessons of living with a HIV-infected child and the importance of AIDS awareness and education.

“After [our son] was diagnosed with AIDS, just like that, overnight, our life was pure hell,” White-Ginder said. “But so much good has come out of his life.”

The ceremony — which about 50 AIDS activists, local politicians and high school students attended — took place in the lobby of Wilbur Cross. In addition to DeStefano and White-Ginder, Dominick Maldonado and Joanne Montgomery, Ryan White Planning Council co-chairs, spoke about future plans for the administration of Ryan White Title I funds in the New Haven community. Wilbur Cross principal Robert Canelli presented a gift of student artwork to White-Ginder, and White-Ginder donated two books to the school library on the life and activism of White. A tree planting immediately followed in the garden adjacent to the main entrance to the school.

During the ceremony, White-Ginder read an excerpt from a speech that her son delivered to 10,000 teachers and the President’s Commission on AIDS in 1988.

The ceremony also celebrated the 10th anniversary of improved HIV/AIDS health care and education in New Haven and Fairfield counties. With funds appropriated by Congress, the Ryan White Title I Planning Council of New Haven and Fairfield Counties and the City of New Haven Title I Office have distributed over $50 million in federal funds to HIV-positive individuals in the community.

“I don’t think I can acknowledge just how much [the New Haven] community has contributed to the Ryan White project,” DeStefano said. “This is a powerful story of how a small group of individuals can influence the lives of many people by finding places to act on this issue [of providing for individuals with AIDS].”

According to a press release, over 50 percent of Connecticut’s AIDS cases reside in New Haven and Fairfield counties. Black and Hispanic individuals comprise only 22 percent of the general population in the two counties but represent 65 percent of reported AIDS cases. Approximately one-third of AIDS victims in New Haven and Fairfield counties do not receive proper medical care.

White, a hemophiliac, contracted AIDS in 1984 from a tainted blood transfusion. At a time when the general public did not have access to information about the disease, White was expelled from his school in Kokomo, Ind. for fear that the disease was contagious. White, along with his family, fought the expulsion in court and went on to become one of America’s first famous AIDS activists, testifying before the President’s Commission on AIDS.

After his death in 1990, Congress passed the Ryan White CARE Act, which administers emergency funds to 51 cities nationwide that are hardest hit by the epidemic, including New Haven.

“This is just one story of the AIDS epidemic. Look at the [tens of] thousands of other families that this disease has affected — and AIDS does affect the whole family,” she said.

Jeanne White-Ginder (far left) and New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. watch as Wilbur Cross High School Principal Robert Canelli honors the life of Ryan White, an AIDS activist.
Matt Baron
Jeanne White-Ginder (far left) and New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. watch as Wilbur Cross High School Principal Robert Canelli honors the life of Ryan White, an AIDS activist.

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