Teen AIDS volunteer carrying torch on Olympic route

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Alexander, 17, a junior at Oakland's Bishop O'Dowd High School, will be carrying the torch as it travels through the Bay Area Friday, May 3 and Saturday, May 4.

Alexander is one of three teens among the 114 Bay Area people who will run the torch along its route from San Jose up the Peninsula to San Francisco and across the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin County. Each runner will cover one kilometer of the route.

Along with 58 others, she was nominated by United Way in gratitude for her volunteer work. She was chosen by a panel that included community leaders and former Olympic athletes. (The other runners were chosen by the Olympic Committee in conjunction with the Coca Cola company.)

While Alexander, who began doing volunteer work for Project Open Hand a year and a half ago, says she's not deserving of the honor, those who selected her called her a community hero.

In addition to delivering meals on weekends, Alexander has gotten other teens involved in Project Open Hand.

"We know how hard it is to get a high-school student to give up her weekends," said Shelly Bell, a United Way representative.

A total of 10,000 runners will take the flame across the country, arriving in Atlanta in time to light the Olympic torch and begin the 1996 summer Olympics.

The runners do not actually pass a single torch from hand to hand. Each runner carries his or her own torch. What they pass between them is the flame itself: Each torch lights the next.

"I think it's neat," Alexander said of the honor. "I'm just really nervous."

A member of Oakland's Temple Sinai, Alexander began volunteering for Project Open Hand after an HIV-positive man addressed her congregation while she was fulfilling service requirements for her confirmation.

The speaker's message touched her, she said, because she could easily identify with someone whose time may be limited.

Five years ago, Alexander was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye condition. So far, her only difficulty is that she can't drive at night. But over time, the condition could leave her blind.

"When it's time for others to help me, I can say I helped other people," said the runner, who is the daughter of Terry Pink Alexander and David Alexander.

She began delivering meals to about a dozen homes. Sometimes the people along her delivery route want to chat. Conversely, she notes, a few don't even want to open the door to let her in.

In recent weeks, Alexander has been working hard to get in shape for the relay. Always an athlete, she played soccer two years ago at the Maccabi Youth Games in Cleveland. Lately, she has been running — around the neighborhood and on a treadmill in the basement of her family's home.

She wants to make sure that, no matter what, she doesn't stumble along the Olympic route. Most of all, she doesn't want the flame to go out while she's carrying it.

That was her initial fear upon learning she had been chosen. Right away she phoned an Olympic official to ask about the likelihood of the flame extinguishing itself. She was reassured that the torch was designed to withstand any weather — rain, wind, hail.

The torch is "everything-proof," Alexander noted.