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A Garage 8,000 Miles from Home MAG
I didn't set out to build a garage halfway around the world …
I spent the summer of 2008 in KwaZulu Natal, the province in South Africa with the highest rate of AIDS infection in the world. With a small group of American high school students, I lived and worked in Amangwe Village, which provides housing and services for children who have lost family members to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Our purpose was to study a global public health problem and experience it firsthand.
Piling out of the bus after a long flight and several hours on the road, we were greeted by a sea of smiling faces. As the children hurled themselves into our arms, we knew that the long journey had been worth it. We choked back tears as they began to sing “This Little Light of Mine,” and we marveled at these AIDS orphans who had lost so much.
Our group's activities ran the gamut from washing the preschoolers' mattresses and painting the orphanage laundry room, to teaching dance and piano and working and playing with the children. When we weren't with the youngest of Amangwe's residents, we went on home-based care excursions to learn about the complicated social and political factors that interfere with effective and timely HIV treatment.
Part of our work in the village involved a self-directed project. As a photography enthusiast, I wanted to put my photo-journalistic skills to work. I took hundreds of pictures of the children, the best of which were displayed to raise awareness about Amangwe Village at a fundraiser we organized in a neighboring town.
I took photographs of little Spelele, a five-year-old boy who loved our occasional ballet classes. There was Buyi, whose infectious laugh made everyone fall in love with her, even though she often broke into the toy room without permission. And then there was one tiny boy, whose name nobody knew, who stood outside the wire fence of the preschool for hours, longing for the day when he would be old enough to attend.
My time at Amangwe Village flew by, and I left with more questions than answers. How were these children so happy despite the burden of their experiences? How many of them would remain healthy and grow to adulthood? I thought that I was going to help educate the children, but I ended up learning more from them than they did from me.
Back in my room at home, I pored through my photos and realized I could give something back to these children. I would create a calendar with their photographs and sell it to raise money to support their programs. On each page I placed a picture of one of the kids juxtaposed with sobering facts about the challenges of combating HIV. Each month, as supporters turn to the next page, they will learn more about the HIV/AIDS crisis in South Africa. And so, this is an ongoing educational project.
It is especially important to me that all American teens become better informed about the devastation that the HIV/AIDS epidemic continues to wreak in Africa and around the world. When a person in the United States tests positive for HIV, it is no longer a death sentence (as it was in 1982). But this isn't true in KwaZulu Natal province, where death can come months – not decades – after the disease becomes symptomatic.
I wanted all the money from the calendar sales to go directly to the village, despite the cost of production, so I managed to get the paper and printing donated. I publicized my project by sending out hundreds of e-mails, networking through my Facebook connections, providing calendars to retail stores, and recruiting friends and family to help. I sold over 600 calendars and raised more than $12,000.
I worked with the village leadership to ensure the money would be put to the best use. We decided that Amangwe Village should use the money to train staff members, expand the clinic, and build a garage to house the vehicles used to care for those affected by HIV/AIDS as part of the home-based outreach program. And that's how I ended up building a garage 8,000 miles from home.