My Donor Story: Painting a Brighter Future
I vividly remember the first time I read about the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF) and its mission to end AIDS in children. I was paging through my monthly issue of Marie Claire when I came across an article that made me pause.
It was a profile of an EGPAF doctor who lived in Tanzania and dedicated her life to preventing children from becoming infected with HIV. I hadn’t realized that was even possible. I read, and re-read the piece, horrified by the sheer number of women in Africa who were dying from AIDS, and thankful that someone out there was doing something to help.
But as a mother of three, I couldn’t fully shake the sense of disparity between being a mom in the United States, and being a mother virtually anywhere else in the world. I found myself coming back to it as I went about my day. As busy as I was -- juggling work, and my family -- I knew I was being called to do something bigger than myself. I knew I had to get involved.
In 2008, I launched my own fundraising campaign and later in the year I joined a group of fellow donors and EGPAF staff on AIDS Walk Africa -- a two week journey through Swaziland to gain a better understanding of the realities of living with HIV in a resource limited setting.
Naively, I thought I was mentally and spiritually prepared for the things that I would witness during our AIDS Walk. At the time I went to Swaziland, one out of every three people in the country was HIV-positive. But there really isn’t a way to prepare yourself to witness suffering on that kind of scale. Each and every person I met during AIDS Walk became the face of the disease for me. Their smiles, their laughter, their sadness, and their stories really drove our mission home.
On our last full day, we helped build a simple playground outside an EGPAF clinic. Children milled about all day just waiting to climb, and swing, and play. I knew most of them were orphans and I couldn’t help but feel how special a tiny thing -- a playground -- was for them. We finished just as the sun was going down and, at last, the kids were able to play.
I especially remember one little girl who hopped on the end of the teeter totter. As the sun set, she leaned back just a bit, and held her arms out wide, "flying" as the teeter totter would rise and fall. Her joy was pure and simple – in that instant she wasn’t HIV-positive, or an orphan, or any of the other labels people might use to describe her. She was just a little girl.
When I returned home, I was filled with restless energy and a desire to share what I’d witnessed in Swaziland on a larger scale. I chose a number of the photographs I’d taken during AIDS Walk to become the focal point of an art series called “Message from Swaziland.”
We held several art shows in Monroe and Madison, WI. as well as in Chicago. I wanted to link the proceeds directly to HIV prevalence in Swaziland so we donated 33 percent of the sales to EGPAF.
All these years later, I still remember that little girl; her portrait hangs above my mantel at home. She would be a young woman now. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about her in some small way, or wonder what her life has become.
I’m drawn to painting because a blank canvass has an inexplicable way of drawing my deepest, most pure feelings, out of me. I hope that the “Message from Swaziland” series and my subsequent work over the years is able to communicate the realities of living with HIV, but also the unfailing sense of hope that, when resources are married with action, things can and will get better.
The Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation provides that hope for millions of women and their families around the world. That is why I am proud to be a supporter of EGPAF. That is why I plan to continue to offer my support, until no child has AIDS.
Jennifer Rikkers is a mother, artist, and a proud supporter of EGPAF.