HIV/AIDS activist Yaa Simpson gave students and parents attending last Saturday’s back-to-school rally a reality check.

Simpson spoke plainly, Sept. 8, about the devastating affects HIV/AIDS has on the black community during the rally, themed “Back to School/Back to Reality.” The event, held at Austin Town Hall Park, 5610 W. Lake St., was sponsored by the Westside Pastors Coalition for AIDS (WPCA). Founded in 1995, The AIDS coalition helps churches establish HIV/AIDS ministries.

Simpson said Austin and the Roseland community on the city’s South Side have the highest number of people living with the disease. In Austin, the fastest growing segment with the disease is between the ages of 13-24.

“The truth is young people will have sex whether you tell them to or not,” said Simpson, an epidemiologist with the Chicago Department of Public Health. “Just telling them, ‘No, don’t have sex’ is not enough. That doesn’t cut it.”

Simpson encouraged parents to be real when it comes to sex and teens. “Everything with oxygen” is “programmed to procreate.” Kids are no different, she said.

“The point is don’t tell them something that is not true. Let me be clear. It is our biological right to have sex,” Simpson said. “You can’t tell me you didn’t because you are sitting with your kids now and grandkids.”

Parents, she explained, need to tell the truth, not just what they wish when it comes to sex. For kids to protect themselves, they have to know about safe sex and the consequences of unprotected sex, she added.

“We have to change our perspective on how we approach our messages,” said Simpson, who dropped some HIV/AIDS facts on the mix of 200 parents and kids attending the back-to-school event. In the city, she said more than 21,300 people are living with HIV. Last year, there were 980 new cases. Blacks make up over half of all new cases citywide.

Simpson stressed with the youth that staving off the disease is in their generation’s hands. They have to be the bioengineers and the pharmacologists to develop a vaccine, new testing technology and new medicines for the disease.

“What I want you to do is go back to school and get skills in science and technology,” she said.

Parent Kendra Woods hopes the kids got the message about being safe and using protection if they engage in sexual activity.

“So many children and adults too are just out having sex unprotected and catching the virus and passing it on and on,” said the Austin mother of four.

“Some of these kids need that speech so they know how valuable life is,” said Taylor Williams, 14, a student at Montini Catholic High School in Lombard. “It’s a lot of kids out here who are doing stuff they shouldn’t be doing trying to impress their peers.”

While the crowd at the rally were mostly elementary students, the coalition’s president, Rev. Stanley Stephens, said it’s never too early to talk about HIV/AIDS.

“This is killing us. We are dying here,” he said. “Why? Because we are not talking about these issues. Our kids need to be educated.”

The coalition went ahead with the rally despite the teachers strike.

“The reality is they have to go back to school at one point,” said WPCA board member, Diana Body, pastor of Life of Peace International Ministry, 951 N. Parkside.

“We need to know that their presence in school is not just about keeping them off the street. It is about preparing them for a career,” WPCA board member Rev. Dwight Bailey said, “It is about preparation for life.”