With the advent of new and better medications, the AIDS crisis in America has become a backburner issue. But while Americans have become somewhat numb to it, the disease has reached pandemic proportions in other parts of the world—particularly in developing countries.
Experts from health, government and public policy institutions worldwide are warning of dire consequences if the disease isn’t brought under control soon. Many people—including several Xavier professors, program directors and students—are in their own unique ways working to address the crisis. Whether caring for victims of the disease, researching best prevention methods or addressing the myriad ethical issues it poses, Xavier people are weighing in on the subject with care and compassion. Here are some of their stories:
The Students Katie Cole comes over a rise in the landscape with her new group of young friends, all dressed in their orange soccer uniforms. They chatter and kick the dust as they walk, heading toward home. In the distance, a sea of tin roofs—wavy, corrugated, cast-off and rusted—masks the shelters beneath. This is where they live—tiny huts with dirt for floors and open-air windows, no water, little power, narrow lanes between. But out of the rough canvas that is the Kibera slum rises a structure—a swath of blue—that is the St. Aloysius Gonzaga Secondary School. The school is the first high school in the world exclusively for AIDS orphans, and it’s a place where Cole looks into these children’s eyes and sees happiness and hope. There are so many reasons to despair: the boy who lives with seven siblings in two rooms; the girl who lives with an aunt after losing both parents to AIDS; the boy whose father died of AIDS and whose stepmother, with nine children already, kicked him out.
But Cole, a Brueggeman Fellow who spent six weeks last summer at St. Aloysius in Nairobi, Kenya, as part of a fellowship that focused on the education of AIDS orphans, learns from these students that what’s important are the relationships between people who are here today, regardless of their surroundings—or their past.
“The people here are so alive, and everything is so beautiful to them,” she says. “How can you not feel that and feed off of it?” From the night of her arrival, when she discovered the glowing crucifix on the wall of her room, to her work crafting a functioning library out of a dark, dirty school room with fellow Brueggeman intern Kristi Horstman, Cole found reason to celebrate in the midst of one of the poorest, saddest places on Earth.
Why? Because, she says, a student cared enough to invite her across a filthy creek and into his parentless home, where they crowded together on a broken-down couch with what remained of his family.
“Seven people lived in those two rooms and took turns sleeping at night because there was not enough room for all to lie down on two small beds. He was 15 and these were his brothers and sisters. There was a baby on one girl’s lap. But he didn’t seem embarrassed at all. It was just like he felt this was the right thing to do, to take a visitor to his house and have them meet the family,” she says. “I felt happy when I left that I had been invited in because I felt it was a sign of trust.” Cole learned about these students through an assignment in which she gave each student a disposable camera and asked them to take pictures of their homes and families and write short pieces about themselves. Cole graduated from Xavier last spring and is turning those stories into a book, financed by the Brueggeman center for dialogue.
The same transformation happened to Horstman. On her first day, she befriended a girl who lost both parents to AIDS and walks an hour to school from her aunt’s home. The day Horstman left, the girl handed her a letter in which she wrote how she wants to continue her education in America. “She said I was so lucky to have both parents who love you and support you and are there for you.”
Horstman was so moved by her experience that she intends to study international relations at the U.S. International University in Nairobi instead of going to law school.