From the Conga Line to the Front Line, Part 1: Reflections from Emma McCune
Throughout the 2014-2015 school year, thousands of college students have stood UP 4 THE FIGHT at dance marathons—raising more than $435,000 to support the mission of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF) to end AIDS in children. Emma McCune, a top fundraiser of UCLA’s Pediatric AIDS Coalition, went from the conga line to the front line, traveling to Tanzania to see her fundraising dollars at work at EGPAF supported sites.
When I left for Tanzania, I had no idea what to expect. What did I know? Only that we were about to witness first-hand the work that the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF) is doing in one of the countries most affected by HIV/AIDS.
Arriving in Moshi, Tanzania, late at night, we were enveloped in a vast darkness. I let my imagination run wild, and I imagined myself wandering down the dank hallways of dilapidated health care centers, while sick babies and distraught mothers cried around me. In the light of the following day, however, I soon discovered that my preconceived notions were false.
At the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center, our first site, I spoke with a doctor who had been working there since the 1980s. He explained how, at the beginning of the epidemic, he had to watch HIV-infected children come into the hospital every day, realizing that there was nothing that he could do for them; the disease was a death sentence. But soon he reached a point in his story when his face lit up: HIV is no longer a death sentence. We have the treatment and services to help children infected with HIV survive.
If you asked me what I remember most about Tanzania, I’d respond with just one word: colors. The buildings were colorful, the fabrics were colorful, the people and their personalities were colorful, emotions were colorful. Everything was colorful. The color perfectly conveyed the joy that I felt at every site we visited. At each clinic and hospital, we were warmly welcomed by laughter, singing, dancing, and joy.
During my time in Tanzania, I learned that EGPAF isn’t just helping HIV-infected individuals survive: it is helping them thrive. EGPAF is doing that by building communities and sustainable health care systems and by working hand-in-hand with governments, partners, mothers, families, and donors so that individuals have the support they need to lead happy and normal lives.
I played with HIV-positive children at the Ariel Club in the Usa River community who had dreams of becoming teachers, doctors, fashion designers, and even the future president of Tanzania. I met with HIV-positive mothers who worked together to help each other overcome the emotional challenges of the disease, encourage each other to continue taking their antiretroviral medication, and support one another financially as they pursued stable careers. And I swooned over adorable babies while their mothers explained to us how they were all born HIV-free and continue to be uninfected.
All of these individuals illustrated hope and promise for a thriving future.
As I reflect back on my time in Tanzania, the dark and somber image of my first night has been painted over by vivid color and light. While we may not yet have a cure for HIV, EGPAF has promised healthy, productive futures for children; provided hope and courage for mothers; and added color to the lives of countless individuals infected with or affected by HIV.