LAHAV, Israel (May. 9)
Ryan White, the American teen-ager whose courageous battle against AIDS — and the prejudice surrounding it — changed the way society perceives people with the disease, was remembered Sunday during the emotional dedication of the AIDS Memorial Forest here in the northern Negev.
White, a hemophiliac, contracted the virus that causes AIDS at age 12 through a tainted blood-clotting agent.
The forest, which will be planted and maintained by the Jewish National Fund, is slated to contain 10,000 trees, 5,000 of which have already been donated.
White’s mother, Jeanne, who traveled to Israel in order to dedicate the forest, planted the first tree in her son’s memory. Fighting back tears, she planted a year-old sapling, a pine with a dozen slender branches.
She told the small gathering of friends and American AIDS activists at the ceremony that “trees are a symbol of life. I hope that for the parents, relatives and friends of people who have died of AIDS, planting a tree in this forest will serve as a way for them to express their loss and pain.”
The ceremony ended with a “healing circle” in which the participants held hands and read out the names of loved ones who had died of AIDS.
“I’m a Methodist and very spiritual, and my faith has helped me through the worst times,” Jeanne White said afterward. “It’s a special feeling to be in the Holy Land.
“It’s also Mother’s Day,” she noted, “and I feel especially close to Ryan today. I miss him very much today.”
‘A STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION’
Ryan and his family were thrust into the limelight in 1985, when the junior high school he was attending in his hometown of Kokomo, Ind., barred him from attending classes on the grounds that he might pass the disease on to others. After months of legal battles, he won the right to attend school.
Despite the victory, the Whites were shunned in their own neighborhood. They were forced to leave their home after their neighbors’ growing hostility culminated in a gunshot fired through their living room window.
The family moved to Cicero, Ind., where Ryan was welcomed at Hamilton Heights High School in nearby Arcadia. He died of AIDS-related complications on April 8, 1990.
The new forest, which is only the second such project to honor victims of AIDS, was inspired by a 15-acre grove established in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park five years ago, according to Isabelle Wade, chairperson of the AIDS Memorial Grove there.
“Though thousands of miles away, these two places are now linked,” she said. “Planting a living forest is like making a prayer for the future — a future without HIV and AIDS.”
“I’m very pleased that the JNF decided to establish this forest,” Serge Dajches, chairman of the Israel AIDS Task Force, said in a telephone interview following the dedication.
“Fighting for recognition and funding is an uphill battle,” Dajches said, “and this forest is a step in the right direction.”