Our hero: Whitney Johnson, 26
Where she lives: South Africa
How she helps: Caring for children with HIV
As a preteen in New York, Whitney Johnson volunteered at soup kitchens and delivered clothes to the homeless. While majoring in psychology at Colorado College, she launched an English-language tutoring program for immigrant children. No one was surprised, then, when she chose to volunteer in an orphanage in Khayelitsha, one of South Africa’s most destitute areas, during her junior year abroad. “I knew at a young age that volunteering was something I was meant to do,” says Johnson.
At the orphanage, Johnson discovered that most of the children had been infected with HIV at birth. Many had been abandoned by parents too sick to care for them, or they were neglected by surviving relatives. Few were receiving the care they needed to stay healthy, even though the government had made free antiretroviral drugs available. In fact, only about a quarter of the approximately 330,000 children under 15 living with HIV in South Africa get the medication they need. “The clinics are overcrowded and underresourced,” Johnson says. “I saw so many kids dying. When I left South Africa, all I wanted to do was go back and change what I had seen.”
After graduation, Johnson began a fund-raising effort that eventually gleaned enough money to found Ubuntu Africa (UBA), a nonprofit organization intended to provide services for HIV-positive kids ages 4 to 18 in Khayelitsha. In 2006, she opened her doors in a building across the street from a family-counseling center. It had weeds growing through the floorboards, and it flooded on a regular basis, but it was a start.
Now the UBA center is housed in a church big enough for a few shared offices as well as the children. The staff includes counselors, a social worker, a nurse, a cook, and a handful of volunteers, ensuring that each child has access to the proper medication, a free healthy meal, and emotional support.
Knowledge, Johnson maintains, is crucial to the kids’ well-being too. Once a week, she makes sure the children receive age-appropriate lessons about AIDS. “When we first started, some of the kids didn’t even know they had HIV,” Johnson says. “They had been told they had asthma and refused to take the medication.”
The social worker sees to it that the kids are enrolled in school and have safe living conditions—especially those without parents.
“One child, Sipho, a nine-year-old boy with HIV, arrived at our center with a black eye and cuts all over his face. He was the victim of repeated sexual and physical abuse,” Johnson says. “He was so malnourished, he looked like he was five years old.” Now Sipho is part of the UBA program and thriving. Johnson plans to soon relocate UBA to an even larger location with more medical staff, private counseling rooms, and a field “so the kids can run around and just feel like kids,” she says. Johnson is also working with the South African Department of Health so that the new center can distribute drugs and give blood tests.
“So many people think that HIV is a death sentence, and it’s not,” Johnson says. “There’s so much that can be done.” In fact, in the five years since the center opened, not one of the 200 kids in the program has died. “Several have come incredibly close,” she says, “but they managed to beat the odds. It’s so emotional to see the strong, independent people they become.” One teenage girl who had received help at UBA even announced that she wanted to become a nurse. Johnson assured her she could be anything she wanted to be. “It’s challenging in this environment, but these children deserve to have big dreams,” she says.
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