Children orphaned by AIDS create new lives

November 29, 2007

submitted photo/ Debbie DeVoe

At the tender age of 8, Morris Chapa’s parents lost the battle to HIV/AIDS, leaving three young boys behind in their native country of Kenya. Their uncle, who was given primary custody of the boys, betrayed his nephews by stripping them of the property their parents had left and chased the boys away.

Left with a feeling of abandonment, the boys fled to their aunt’s home in hopes of receiving care. Shortly after, Morris, along with one of the younger brothers, were tested positive for HIV/AIDS.

“Support a wish of some boy in Nairobi” to finish college and “become a responsible citizen. The plan of that child is kind of like a dream that is dead.” This was the plea of Robert Makunu, a native of Kenya and the deputy HIV unit manager of the faith-based organization, Catholic Relief Services. “His parents are not alive because of HIV.” Makunu visited Cabrini College in preparation for Cabrini’s observance of World Aids Day on Dec. 1.

Kenya has 37 million people and 1.5 million are children orphaned because of AIDS. They have lost both parents due to the HIV/AIDS epidemic that has been declared a national disaster in Kenya.

Makunu told another story of a young girl in Kenya who was impregnated by a village chief. She faced the possibility of being infected of HIV/AIDS. She then faced the prospect of having her unborn child affected by the virus as well. This is the crisis in many parts of Africa. It is steadily worsening.

In Kenya orphaned girls are subjected to being sold into marriages by their families in exchange for economic gain. Young girls are then bound to relationships or what feel more like contracts to older men, often complete strangers, who are likely to carry the HIV/AIDS virus due to their sexual history.

Makunu, with Catholic Relief Services in Kenya, spends his days directly working with orphans and vulnerable children who have been affected by the growing virus and situations such as the impregnating of young women. He and CRS work to rebuild the broken dreams of the young generation of Kenya.

The Children Behind Project is a community-based program Makunu is currently heading in Kenya’s Niyanza Province. With the burden of HIV and large numbers of orphans emerging, this intervention program takes its roots directly in the communities where these orphaned children are living. It aims to provide anti-retroviral therapy, home-based care, community support, shelter-improvement, micro financial support, agricultural initiatives and the avoidance of the stigma placed on those infected.

Today, at 12 years old and on the brink of his teenage years, Morris is due to finish his primary schooling and is an aspiring “farming engineer.” In a community where the houses have often collapsed and schools were empty without the laughter and life of children, Morris is now living in a home that has been renovated to accommodate his family.

They have been given rations of cornmeal and other resources. Morris and his younger brother have also been given the proper treatment to live as healthy young man.

“Morris is a star sitting next to the bishop during the Aids Day celebration,” Makunu said.

Programs like The Child Behind Project are the reason Morris is alive today. The program rescued the impregnated girl. As a result, the wealthy man who committed the immoral act was arrested. The girl got the opportunity to finish her secondary education with a scholarship program through the American Embassy. These are the solutions that these programs are attempting to implement.

The children understand the AIDS issue that is ravaging Kenya. “If I have no father or mother because they have died from AIDS, then I understand the magnitude of the problem,” Makunu said.

They are fully aware of the severity of this raging epidemic and the project is developing a better future for their generation and generations to come. “The need for the projects is extremely high. That is the motivating factor,” Makunu said.

The Children Behind Project consists of volunteers who act as foster relatives and caregivers, filling the void many of the children experience after the death of both parents. These children who have the responsibility of caring for their younger siblings and running their households, see these volunteers who have been moved by the spirit of volunteerism, as parents and guides.

They are trained in the basic skills needed to survive in their villages. They are taught to grow their own crops for use in their homes, the techniques and abilities to create small businesses to earn money and provide for their families and other necessary responsibilities that an adult or a head of the household would normally perform. Often, they are provided with school supplies, rations of food and other necessities.

“There are some people in Africa who don’t go to school because of a lack of uniform. It’s just a dress,” Makunu said with disbelief.

“It’s a national issue. An orphan like this does not know what to do. When you provide that uniform she goes to school. She is warm and dry and she’s fine.”

Catholic Relief Services along with Makunu aim to surface the reality of this inhumane way of life that these children have been experiencing, through no fault of their own. They are bringing the message to the United States and hoping for support and advocacy.

College and university students were mentioned as playing a large role in advocacy and the act of bringing awareness to a country that only hears of the crisis but does not see it firsthand.

In 2004, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) was implemented, which allocated $15 billion to create various programs providing health care, education and prolonged life for those suffering.

“People get their lives back,” Arlene Flaherty, representative of the CRS northeast office, said in reference to the PEPFAR plan.

“The message is for you and anyone to be a part of that change. If you want to be a part of the change come and see the change. Come and pray for the change,” Makunu said.

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