Positive education

- Nicola M. Sebastian -

MANILA, Philippines – You know the drill. Wear the red ribbon. Recognize the HIV plus-sign. Revere the ragged-but-worldly survivors. Play safe. Catch someone at the table next to you in Coffee Bean saying, “AIDS is so over; the world has bigger problems,” and you realise that even causes have expiration dates. Unfortunately, the same thing can’t be said for the problems themselves.

Sometimes it takes a Gym Class Hero to help us remember how to stay alive. Travis McCoy, lead vocalist for the indie hip-hop group Gym Class Heroes, swore in earlier this year as ambassador to MTV’s youth-against-AIDS movement, the Staying Alive Foundation. Taking his tenure in office seriously, he flew to the Philippines last week to give major props (in the form of a nice, shiny, Staying Alive Foundation Award and cash grant) to the home-grown Baluti (Protect the Child from Infection) project, a group of youths that break the taboo on that infamous, three-letter word, s-e-x, with a healthy dose of un-Pinoy bluntness and solid, practical information about safer sex.

That’s why McCoy chose to spend his only free day talking to the press, hot and sticky from the unaccustomed Manila clime but still keeping it cool enough to give my lil’ sis an autograph and a compliment (“My girlfriend would love that belt” — Katy Perry, you mean?). ‘Cause staying alive starts with playing smart — educating yourself and getting the word out to others (even if that means releasing a new track about your experiences, as McCoy will be doing on World AIDS Day). Chatting up topics from Confucian philosophy to Paris Hilton’s merit as a role model, the guy makes it clear that it’s high time we stopped blaming fate and started taking charge of life.

So, how’s your trip to the Philippines so far?

It’s been part grieving in some ways, enlightening in a lot of ways, and inspiring in many, many ways. I’ve made a lot of friends, and I’ve seen those friends, in a day’s time, make a huge impression on the youth. It’s been amazing.

Any experiences you’ll never forget?

We went to Kabuboy Bridge in Sucat, Parañaque, and there are entire families living under it. This wasn’t even part of the itinerary, but when I was told about the situation it was totally something that I wanted to experience for myself. So I went there, walked through, met some of the families that were there, and when I got out I just fell apart. Just seeing the conditions, seeing the babies, and all these families. What was even more heartbreaking was that they are paying rent — to live under a bridge. It was really the saddest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.

And it’s those people you’re working to help. But it’s interesting how, from a band started by a bunch of pals in gym class, you’ve become a “Gym Class Hero” in your own right — doing something that other kids can look up to. How do you feel about your new status as a role model?  

Every time it gets brought up that I’m an ambassador, it’s empowering and it makes me want to work harder. It makes me want to take more trips, learn more about this work, meet with more young people. I don’t know, I feel blessed.

I’d have to say you probably make a better role model than the likes of Paris Hilton…

It’s sad. We live in a society right now where we have to question the depth and I guess the motives of some of these people we call “role models.” I mean I don’t wanna knock Paris Hilton, I don’t know her. But a part of me thinks the fact that she’s from a wealthy family makes her an important figure. She can do so much more with what she has. I think Paris Hilton has a hell of a lot more influence on kids than I do, in terms of young women and girls. So it’s sad that she’s not using that for good or to help educate. I see her using it to promote her new perfume or reality show.

So what made you decide to join this campaign?

I was directly affected by AIDS at a young age. I had a loved one, someone very, very close to me, who died of AIDS. And I never really made the connection until well after I decided to take on the role of ambassador. I think it influenced my decision subconsciously or something. ‘Cause aside from wanting to do what I can do, being in the position that I am in with whatever influence I have, I think I’m doing it for her.

It’s crazy that sex is all over the media these days, but people still don’t really talk about it.

We actually talked to a Monsignor yesterday from the Catholic Church. One of the things he brought up is that it’s kind of taboo. And it shouldn’t be because it’s in our faces every day. You know, I stopped at 7-11 yesterday to grab a pack of gum, and right above the gum there were condoms. Another issue brought up was that it’s not talked about in the household, from which we can shift the blame and say it’s the parents’ fault. But at the same time, if we don’t learn from our parents, we’re gonna learn it from our friends, we’re gonna learn it from television, we’re gonna learn it from magazines. So we can’t really blame the family, the household, for us not being educated, because young kids know what’s going on. There are 12-year-olds getting pregnant. They know what sex is. So, at the end of the day, it’s about taking responsibility and not shifting the blame.

And learning about it the right way is key too huh? Because TV and even friends give kids this glorified idea of what sex is all about.

And all that should really give you initiative to take it upon yourself, to really delve in and find out the real facts for yourself.

What’s the main idea that you would want to teach kids these days, about staying alive?

Educate yourselves. If there are HIV or AIDS forums or programs, go. Go. Take notes, you understand? And once you do that, spread the word. Tell your friends; tell your family. If there were a few words of wisdom that I’d like to share, it’d be: to listen hard and speak soft. It sounds very Confucian, but it’s a mantra that popped up in my head the other day and I think it’s very relevant to my experience here.

On the other hand, what have you learned from this experience, from the kids that you’ve met? I’m sure it’s not just been a teaching experience, but a learning one as well?

We’d be here all day, sweetheart (laughs). But, really, I think one of the main things I’ve learned is not to take the small things for granted, like oxygen, or the fact that I have a roof over my head. The fact that I eat decently every day. The fact that I have running water and don’t have to worry about it being contaminated. You understand? It’s the little things that we take for granted that mean a lot to people who don’t have those things.

And a final question…how do you Stay Alive?

How do I stay alive? I think by surrounding myself with like-minded people, those who share the same ideas, people who don’t take life for granted.










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