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Children Orphaned By AIDS Hail Programs That Work

By Michael Hill

If the aid workers who attended a recent two-day symposium on orphans and vulnerable children in Washington, D.C., needed to be reminded why they do such work, all they had to do was listen to the presentations by Erick Omondi Okoth, Kahigwa Doreen Arinaitwe and Ikhetheleng Letima.

Erick

Erick Omondi Okoth was taking care of 15 family members when a CRS partner in Kenya helped him and his family with food, shelter, health care and education. Photo by Lynne McDermott/CRS

While most on the panels at the symposium, sponsored by Catholic Relief Services, were talking about programs and evaluations and other programmatic responses to the plight of growing numbers of children affected by AIDS, Erick and Doreen and Letima were explaining what happens when you get it right.

Their stories confirmed that a little help can often go a long way, that a small investment in orphans and children who might otherwise be lost to the tide of this devastating disease can pay off in amazing ways.

An Audience Riveted

Most of the 100 or so professionals in the room at the National Press Club had lived and worked in developing countries, had seen for themselves that it is possible to bring hope out of what seem to be hopeless situations. But they were unusually quiet and attentive when Erick took the microphone.

Erick was born in 1978 in a region in western Kenya near the Tanzania border and Lake Victoria that, he said, has one of the highest incidences of HIV in his country, an infection rate estimated at 14 percent. In 1998, his father succumbed. In 2001, the first of his father's three wives died.

"In 2002, within a day of each other, my mother and my father's second wife died," he said, speaking slowly, deliberately, his face serious though surprisingly eager to break into a broad smile. "All six of my uncles were already dead, along with their wives."

That left Erick as the eldest, responsible for his seven siblings as well as his eight cousins.

"I had to take more responsibility, being the father, mother and big brother to my extended family," Erick told the symposium.

He added an obvious understatement: "Life was not easy."

That statement was certainly true for Doreen as well. Also born in 1979, she moved as a young child from her rural Ugandan home to the slums of Kampala where her father was to look for work, but he found none.

"With no job, he began drinking with guys," she said. "Incidents happened and he contracted HIV in 1986. By 1987, he had fallen sick."

Soon Doreen's mother, too, showed signs of the disease. She could no longer work. They lost their home and were living in a shack in the bush.

Doreen

A CRS partner in Uganda helped Kahigwa Doreen Arinaitwe become an elementary school teacher. She now works to inspire other children who have lost family to HIV. Photo by Lynne McDermott/CRS

"We were beggars," she said in the lilting tone of a proper school teacher.

Letima told a story different in the particulars, but similar in its chronicle of the devastation.

The 18-year-old lives in a remote area of Lesotho, the tiny country that is an island in the midst of South Africa. The seventh of eight children, Letima was used to poverty, but also to getting enough to eat.

"After the death of my father, life changed," he said. "Food was the problem."

Hope in All Its Forms

In all three cases, contact with a CRS-funded program helped to turn around these lives that could have descended into despair.

For Letima, the program provided food support and showed him and his family how to maintain a so-called keyhole garden, which increased the variety and nutrition of the food he and his siblings ate.

"We were able to have three meals a day," he said.

The program also provided books and shoes so Letima and his siblings could return to school.

"We would be like all the other schoolchildren who were not orphans," he said. "My life is now better."

In 1992, Doreen found a CRS partner—the Christian Caring Community—through a church where she went looking for help. Better food and shelter followed. And, very important to Doreen, fees for school.

She was not about to turn her back on this opportunity. She studied hard. If there was not transportation to school, she walked. She passed her exams. She moved on to secondary school and excelled there.

This woman, who as a child was living in a shack in the bush near Kampala, now has a college degree in education and is an elementary school teacher. She has recently married. She talks to children who, like her, have had their lives changed by HIV, trying to give them hope.

"What I have done is because of the help of the Christian Caring Community in collaboration with CRS," she said.

Giving Back

Erick was in a similar situation. Three meals a day was also out of the reach of his family. They were down to one or two, almost always just porridge.

Letima

Ikhetheleng Letima's father died, leaving the family short of food. A CRS-supported program provided them with food and taught them how to grow more for themselves. Photo by Lynne McDermott/CRS

In 2003, Erick said he came across a CRS local partner, Community Development Program. He enrolled his family.

"We received food support and shelter upgrades," he said. "Since my father died, we had had no proper housing. We got an iron-roofed house. We received health care and school uniforms."

His younger siblings began attending primary and secondary schools. One graduated from high school and passed his exams, but with grades that did not qualify him for a free college education. Erick hopes he can find funds for the boy to attend a private school.

Erick was too old for high school, but he borrowed money through the program to enroll in a technical school, taking a butchery course. He turned that education into a catering business, bringing in as much as $150 a month.

Erick has also started a small farm that now produces more corn than his family needs. He gives some to those in need and sells the rest.

Like Doreen, Erick wants to help those in his situation, so he formed a group called Blue Cross. "It gives psychosocial support to youth affected by the impact of…HIV."

There were those who tried to divert Doreen and Erick from their paths, seeing desperate people who might take desperate measures, offering to take Doreen in if she would look after children, and to take some of Erick's siblings off his hands and make them domestic workers.

Both of them refused.

"It was our parents who died," Erick said. "Not our dreams."

Michael Hill is CRS' communications officer for sub-Saharan Africa. He is based at the agency's headquarters in Baltimore.

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