Shots were fired at his home, children and adults taunted him, and he was not allowed to attend school because of the disease that raged through his blood. Still, a teenage boy found the courage to stand in front of a nation to tell his story about HIV/AIDS and his determination to live a normal life. That boy was Ryan White. While Ryan passed away 27 years ago (April 8, 1990), his story lives on today through the Power of Children exhibit at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis and through the thousands of letters people wrote to him.
His mother, Jeanne White Ginder, will share her experiences and the challenges her family faced back then when she visits the museum on March 31, April 1 and April 2, 2017. For the first time, she will also talk about an innovative project to make thousands of letters public that Ryan White received during his short life.
The archive of nearly 6,000 letters offers significant cultural information related to the AIDS epidemic, the perspective of children, and related issues of tolerance, education, and inspiration as well as a window to popular culture of the 1980s. It is one way for scholars to use the information as part of their research regarding the misunderstood disease and for the museum to share the legacy of Ryan White for generations to come through unique lesson plans.
“By engaging students who are close in age to Ryan when he faced such difficult challenges, we hope to give today’s youth a voice to encourage acceptance and understanding of the extraordinary challenges faced by many. With that voice, they each have the power to transform the world,” said Dr. Jeffrey H. Patchen, president and CEO, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.
People of all ages and backgrounds wrote the young man. From celebrities like Elton John, Greg Louganis and Alyssa Milano to elementary school children who were bullied – letters arrived from every corner of the country. The letters in this collection are from everyday people who poured their hearts out on to paper. Some letters might be considered fan mail and yet others state how they admired him or wanted to be his friend, “Ryan, I just want you to know that I think you are an inspiration to all people! Your courage is great and strong. You should be proud of yourself for making people more educated about AIDS. I look ahead to my teaching career with less anxiety about teaching children with AIDS thanks to you,” Anonymous.
The letters from countless people whose lives were similarly changed and the words they used to express those emotions weren’t lost. They too, live on in the letters they wrote that will soon be digitized so people around the world can read them and reference them as part of academic research projects focusing on such varied subjects as public health, education policy, and the role of celebrity in American culture. A $102,000 Museums for America award/grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services will enable a team of people from The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis Center for Digital Scholarship (IUPUI) to study the letters and develop themes and key learning areas that are prominent in the collection. While some examination of the letters has been conducted, the content has yet to be transcribed and organized into an accessible system for public research and education. Only a handful of AIDS archives exist today and none focus on a child’s perspective, making this a unique resource for anyone with an interest in the topic of AIDS, social change, and the experience of children.
The museum is also asking for the public’s help. The museum is seeking feedback from those who sent a letter, postcard, or picture to Ryan White in the 1980s. If this is you, please email email@example.com and include your name, contact information, and anything you remember about what you sent to Ryan. Before these letters are available to the public, they will be redacted to protect the privacy of the writers.
The world has changed dramatically since Ryan’s death. Yet, two decades after he passed, his dear friend Elton John wrote an open letter to a national newspaper, “I would gladly give my fame and fortune if only I could have one more conversation with you, the friend who changed my life as well as the lives of millions living with HIV.” He went on to say, “I was by your side when you died at Riley Hospital. You’ve been with me every day since.”