A spotlight on AIDS in Africa
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Although the AIDS epidemic doesn't capture the headlines that it once did, more than 30 million people around the globe suffer with the disease, and almost three-quarters of those are in Africa.
The devastating impact of AIDS in Africa is brought up-close and personal in the "World Vision Experience: AIDS -- Step into Africa" exhibit where visitors take a multimedia walk-through that offers a vivid picture of AIDS and its impact through the eyes of four children.
The World Vision exhibit, which came to St. Stephen's Church in Sewickley last weekend, draws visitors through fabric entranceways into corridors, one for each of the four children. Through headsets, with the music and sounds of Africa and children in the background, and with the help of narrators, each child tells his or her story.
St. Stephen's partnered with the Chippewa Evangelical Free Church in Chippewa, Beaver County, to bring the event to Sewickley.
World Vision is a Christian relief and development organization that helps children and their communities worldwide. It is touring the country with the exhibit to educate people on the continuing AIDS crisis around the world, especially in Africa.
Jessica Olson, of Seattle, the tour communications manager, said more than 1,400 people visited the church to see the display, which moved from here to Bethlehem, Pa., as its next stop. "We just hope that it makes HIV/AIDS more personal and that [visitors] will leave here wanting to do something about it."
And that's just what happened after Raymond and Erin Gonzalez, of Houston, Texas, saw the exhibit. They were in town visiting Erin's parents and were profoundly affected by the stories they heard.
"I want to sponsor a child," Mrs. Gonzalez said. " I always thought, 'Oh, I should do it,' but [now] I'm actually going to do it." She hopes to help a 5-year-old, the same age as their daughter Isabella.
The couple had walked through the corridor that chronicled the journey of Babirye, a 14-year-old girl who is living a difficult life in Africa. Pushing through soft curtains of fabric revealed pictures of Babirye and her family, rooms with the clothes she wore and the bed she slept on.
"Being a mom, it's gut-wrenching to think of Babirye. Her mom went away for months. I can't imagine my child being kicked out of her hut. I think everyone should see it," she said of the exhibit.
One of the first people that that visitors encountered was Tom Smith, of Sewickley, a former World Vision board member who was volunteering at the exhibit. He sponsors children, and he added another child after experiencing the exhibit. He believes education is important to fight the disease, and the exhibit does that.
"It brings people face to face with the reality of what it is like for people who are living in AIDS-infected environments. We don't have a clue how enormous the problem is," he said.
The Rev. Aaron Zimmerman, assistant pastor at St. Stephen's, walked quietly through the dimly lit corridor that told Babirye's story.
"It was deeply affecting emotionally. I really started caring about this kid," he said. He learned that Babirye tested positive for HIV but is successfully being treated along with her mother for the disease.
After emerging from the exhibit, he stood in front of the prayer wall where visitors post prayers for the children they just learned about.
He wrote "May the Lord bless you and keep you."
"That's the prayer I pray for my children every night when I put them to bed," he said. "And then I just wrote, 'My heart breaks.' "
World Vision runs a distribution center in Sewickley. For more information about local volunteer opportunities, call Marilyn Mulvihill at 412-749-1812. For more information about World Vision and this exhibit, go to www.worldvisionexperience.org.
First Published October 9, 2008 12:00 am