by Ben Smallheer
As the alarm goes off at 3 a.m., I stagger around the house in final preparation for a trip that will take me more than 5,000 miles, across the Atlantic Ocean, to Durban, South Africa. Why South Africa you ask? Well, as a medical professional, I have become increasingly involved in medical mission trips. South Africa is a country where five and a half million people live with HIV, and almost 1,000 AIDS deaths occur every day.
Adults are not the only ones affected by HIV/AIDS. It is estimated that 1.2 million South African children live as orphans due to AIDS in 2005, compared to 780,000 in 2003. An estimated 50,000 are HIV positive, and in need of antiretroviral drugs (ARVs), but only around 10,000 are receiving them.
I know, I know…what about the USA? Well, countries with more stable socioeconomic status began to use a combination of ARVs to effectively treat HIV in 1996. This treatment has typically been available to those who could afford to pay for private healthcare. The lack of availability of ARVs plays a large role in HIV/AIDS treatment while the other side of the coin is education and prevention.
Although HIV prevention campaigns usually encourage people to use condoms and reduce their number of sexual partners, women and girls in South Africa are often unable to negotiate safer sex and are frequently involved with men who have a number of sexual partners. They are also particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse and rape, and are economically and socially subordinate to men.
So, now you ask, what are you doing when you are there? Well, there is a small village called Umzinhyathi located just outside Durban in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. KwaZulu-Natal is one of the provinces recording the highest HIV rates. Within this village is a small orphanage, Sihawkelwe Lauren’s Children’s Home (SLCH). Sihawkelwe translates into “God has had compassion on us.” Christ Church Cathedral and Episcopal Church on Broadway that I regularly attend support this orphanage.
I jumped at the first opportunity to bring a higher quality of life to these children, whose lives have been innocently but permanently affected by HIV/AIDS. Seventeen children live at the orphanage. Through the support of Christ Church Cathedral, the children receive school uniforms, school fees, transportation to school (for the children whose school is too far away to walk), beds, food and blankets: those things we all take for granted. Additionally, approximately 52 families receive subsidized food from the facility: food they typically would go without.
So, one more time — why, you ask? Being in the medical field, I could not turn my back on this opportunity. What I experience are emotions words cannot explain. I can’t describe what it feels like to sit in the dirt at Sihawkelwe with one child on my lap and another on my back, listening to them sing songs in their native Zulu tongue. Of course they try to teach the thick-tongued Americans how to speak their language. Above all, there is an unconditional love communicated both to the Sihawkelwe residents as well as to us. This connection is deeply rooted and is blind to individual differences. Being able to maintain my identity as a gay man while still being associated with a religious organization AND simultaneously utilizing my knowledge of the medical profession could not be a more appropriate fit. I agreed to participate as one of the members of the Board of Directors for the SLCH non-profit organization that has been established stateside. So, my dedication does not stop when I get back on the plane to fly home, but continues year round! My hope is for these 17 children get a chance they would not have normally been given. Until then, love must know no boundaries, and if I can be a part of mankind reaching out in a global effort, I will do what I can do to change the lives of these special children.