On Friday, June 3, 2011, Mrs. Annie Coons, wife of Senator Christopher Coons (D-DE), visited an activity organized by the ABMS/PSI Amour et Vie program at CEG Océan, a local high school. Mrs. Coons' visit came as part of a Congressional Delegation led by Senator Coons and Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA) to assess the Peace Corps program in Benin. This visit provided an excellent opportunity to highlight the ABMS/PSI/Peace Corps partnership.
Mrs. Coons was hosted by Colleen Longacre, a second-year Peace Corps volunteer working with ABMS/PSI as technical assistant to the Amour et Vie program. Mrs. Coons was also accompanied by Mrs. Amelia Knight, wife of U.S. Ambassador James Knight; Leger Foyet, Executive Director of ABMS; Megan Wilson, Deputy Executive Director of ABMS; and Lauren Erickson-Mamane, Director of Program and Training for Peace Corps/Benin.
The Amour et Vie program, financed by USAID's 5-year, $18 million IMPACT project, is designed to improve youth behaviors associated with HIV/AIDS and reproductive health. The Amour et Vie program is comprised of three main components, 1) a bi-monthly magazine, 2) a weekly radio show, and 3) a network of peer educators who conduct health education activities in their communities. Each component of the program is driven by the understanding that peer education is a key influence in determining adolescent decision-making and stays true to the Amour et Vie motto "by youth, for youth."
During her brief visit, Mrs. Coons was able to see each element of the Amour et Vie program in action. ABMS/PSI's youth interns, who are responsible for contributing content to the magazine and host the radio show, set up three booths where students could come to obtain information and ask questions. The first booth focused on abstinence. Students were given pamphlets and magazine articles on the benefits of delaying sex and the importance of fidelity in relationships. The second focused on condoms. Here peer educators demonstrated correct condom usage and then asked the students to do it themselves. The third booth offered free HIV counseling and testing for students by trained personnel.
After stopping by each booth, Mrs. Coons was invited to participate in a meeting of the school's Amour et Vie club. Club members meet after school every Wednesday to listen to the radio program, read the magazine and share their opinions. During this meeting, club members participated in a game designed by ABMS/PSI called "Brushfire" which demonstrated how quickly HIV can spread through a community if people do not take proper precautions. Afterwards, the students talked to Mrs. Coons about how being part of this program has changed their lives and inspired them to help change the lives of others.
Activities like the ones organized at CEG Océan are organized by Peace Corps volunteers in their communities throughout Benin through Peace Corps' partnership with ABMS/PSI. This partnership forms an important link between ABMS/PSI (and the technical and material support that ABMS/PSI offers) and rural communities throughout Benin where Peace Corps volunteers live and work. Since 2003, more than 100 Peace Corps volunteers have formed Amour et Vie peer education teams in their communities and more than 110,000 youth throughout Benin have participated in activities organized by ABMS/Peace Corps peer educators. Through the President's Malaria Initiative (PMI), ABMS/PSI and Peace Corps volunteers have facilitated the purchase and distribution of more than 11,000 bed-nets and organized educational activities to combat malaria. ABMS/PSI also offers technical and material support to various volunteer projects in the field, such as camps to encourage girls to stay in school, bike tours to promote hand washing, and World AIDS Day activities designed to combat stigma and discrimination.