Lobbying Where It Counts
Fairfax Students Take Hepatitis C Campaign to Capitol Hill
By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 15, 2004; Page B01
For much of her life, 18-year-old Erika Stein has watched her father struggle with hepatitis C, as traditional treatments left him tired and moody and failed to fight off the virus attacking his liver.
So when Stein's classmates at Fairfax County's Robinson Secondary School were searching for a community service project last year, she told them about the disease -- and her dad. Her story prompted the launch of a campaign that has taken them from their high school marketing class to Capitol Hill. Two weeks ago, they stood with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) as he vowed to fight for a bill that would dedicate $90 million to hepatitis C research and education.
Yesterday, Stein, who works part time at Fair Oaks mall and used to get nervous calling to order a pizza, sat alongside an epidemiologist from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an official from the Department of Veterans Affairs and a physician from the National Institutes of Health and, without hesitation, told her story again to members of the House Government Reform Committee.
"When we began this project a year ago, no one wanted to talk about hepatitis C," Stein said. "We believe you care about Americans like my father, Gene Stein. If we don't provide some funding for research and education for hepatitis C, it will impact each and every one of our lives."
Stein's five-minute testimony was the latest milestone for Robinson Secondary marketing students, who have turned Washington into a second classroom. In the past decade, the school's marketing club has rallied support for federal funds for hemophiliacs who contracted the virus that causes AIDS and has asked senators to endorse efforts to stop sexual predators. They also worked with Amnesty International for the regulation of so-called "conflict diamonds."
Jay Walker, a Robinson marketing teacher, said knocking on a legislator's door to push an agenda is the ultimate lesson in selling, with the added benefit of providing a close-up look at the inner workings of the federal government. His students are coached by real-life lobbyists before their trips and work with veteran activists. But in the end, the teenagers are on their own when they approach lawmakers or their staff members.
"This is marketing at the highest level," Walker said. "You want to talk about the hardest sell ever, sit down with an aide from a legislative office. If you can do this, you can sell anything."
Walker said he watches some students who are too shy to speak up in class grow into polished public speakers. The teenagers call newspaper reporters and radio and television stations to push for coverage of their rallies. Robinson marketing students will tell you that hepatitis C -- the most common blood-borne disease in the United States, contracted from blood products, shared needles, tattooing and body piercing and, rarely, through sex -- affects more than 4 million Americans.
But are the budding lobbyists persuasive?
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) thinks so. He said his young constituents "had a lot to do" with his decision to schedule yesterday's hearing.
They called attention to the problem," Davis said. "You need people who don't get discouraged easily, and that's what these kids provide."
About 500 Robinson students are involved in the lobbying, all members of the Distributive Education Clubs of America, a marketing club. Students from chapters nationwide research and create marketing strategies for products and businesses and present their ideas at competitive conferences.
Erika Stein, with Rep. Thomas M. Davis, told lawmakers funding hepatitis C research would show "you care about Americans like my father." (Bymelina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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Edward L. Davis, 's the clubs' executive director, said each chapter runs annual community service projects. Most groups opt for projects such as building a house for Habitat for Humanity or fundraising for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, Davis said, but Robinson has taken a different approach.
Walker said Robinson's chapter first headed downtown in the mid-1990s when a former student who worked for a group supporting the General Agreement on Trades and Tariffs asked for help. The students did little more than drop off literature, but it was just the beginning.
Not long afterward, Ellis Sulser, a former staff member at the Distributive Education Clubs national office in Reston and a hemophiliac, came to talk to the students. With that visit, the students began a multi-year effort to support the Ricky Ray Hemophilia Relief Fund Act, which provided one-time payments to hemophiliacs infected with HIV through transfusions.
Sulser, who is HIV positive and has hepatitis C, said the students provided the manpower and enthusiasm he and other advocates needed to get the bill noticed. "They could visit every office on Capitol Hill in one day," Sulser said. "We're all cripples. We'd get maybe 30 people, and we can't walk."
The students say some lawmakers have been welcoming, others dismissive. Lauren Burgess, 18, said one legislative aide told her that his state had too few hepatitis C deaths to warrant more funding. "He had this sarcastic attitude, and he wanted to see if I knew all the facts," she said.
Burgess said she just moved on to the next office.
Walker said his students have hit a few snags. Once, he said, the students were in the middle of a rally before he realized one of the signs misspelled hemophiliac.
But yesterday, the lawmakers, physicians and other activists gave them a round of applause.
"Erika, I want you to know you touched me," Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) said. "Eventually if enough people hear you, somebody is going to get the message."
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