Jeanne White Ginder is pictured outside her son Ryan White's bedroom, part of "The Power of Children" exhibit at The Children's Museum. Ryan died 26 years ago of complications from AIDS.(Photo: Maureen Gilmer/IndyStar)
INDIANAPOLIS — Jeanne White Ginder sat alone in her son's bedroom, lost in thought. It was a rare moment of quiet before two dozen Indianapolis Public School fifth-graders invaded the space.
Ginder calls this "Ryan's room." And indeed it is. Everything in it belonged to Ryan, the Indiana youth who achieved celebrity status before dying of complications from AIDS 26 years ago. The GI Joes, the drums, the posters — all Ryan's.
The Cicero teen's bedroom is preserved at The Children's Museum, part of the"Power of Children" exhibit. Ginder was there Monday to share her son's message of tolerance and respect at an anti-bullying presentation for local middle-school students.
"It's comforting to be here," Ginder said. "I feel like Ryan is here."
If he were here, what would he say?
"Let's all be nice to each other. It's that simple," she said.
Ryan was 13 when he contracted HIV through a tainted blood treatment for his hemophilia. He was prevented from attending school in the Kokomo area for a while. The disease was new and terrifying, and as a result, Ryan and his family were shunned by many.
"People were afraid. They were uneducated," said Heather Stephenson, a childhood friend. "But Ryan White really changed the world. He made us look at things differently."
The family moved to Cicero, where Ryan enrolled at Hamilton Heights High School. He died at age 18 but not before attracting the attention and friendship of such celebrities as Michael Jackson and Elton John.
Ginder, who now lives in Florida, has spent the past two decades fighting for her son's legacy of acceptance and respect for people who are different.
While bullying is not new, social media has exacerbated the problem, and now Ginder worries that today's toxic political climate has further eroded the values that parents and schools try to teach children.
She tiptoes into the presidential minefield and sums up her opinion of Republican candidate Donald Trump, whom she has met on several occasions. In fact, the businessman was at her home briefly when Ryan died.
He was working with Jackson on a business deal and flew the singer on his corporate jet to Indiana for the funeral. "Donald was here maybe five minutes and then left," Ginder said.
Despite some stories floating around that suggest otherwise, Ginder said Trump did not pay for Ryan's treatment or fly him to doctors.
"I like a lot of things Donald wants to do, but I don't like how he conducts himself. Not respecting women, making fun of the handicapped — that really concerns me," Ginder said. "How can we expect our kids not to bully when a person who is running for president bullies?"
“How can we expect our kids not to bully when a person who is running for president bullies?”Jeanne White Ginder
With that, she stopped and said, "Am I going to get myself in trouble?"
But then she continued: "Kids are going to grow up and think it's OK to say the things he does. It's wrong, it's bullying, and it's what we're trying so hard to stop. We need to teach our kids to be respectful to everybody."
Travis "Mr. MoJo" Brown reinforced that message in a program with the fifth- and sixth-graders attending the summit.
He challenged the students to reject "the haters and the bullies," those who would "taunt, tease and torment" others to make themselves feel better.
"If we do that, we change the entire game. It doesn't matter if you're an athlete, a rich kid, poor kid, skateboarder, goth kid, performing arts, band, choir, guard, dance, FFA, church youth group, geeks, LGBT groups, Latino groups, African-American groups, special-needs groups, you accept and respect everybody.
"You were born to make a difference. Make a positive difference."
Follow Maureen Gilmer on Twitter: @MaureenCGilmer