Edward Pettitt has a tough job. As Teen Club Coordinator at the Botswana-Baylor Children’s Clinic Centre of Excellence, a pediatric HIV clinic in Gabarone, he is responsible for running a peer support group for HIV-positive adolescents, ages 13-19. Under the best of circumstances, teenagers aren’t known for their compliance, but for these most vulnerable and invisible victims of the HIV epidemic – children who were born to HIV-positive mothers and contracted the disease at birth or through breastfeeding – their lives depend on them meticulously staying on their meds.
Botswana, with a population under two million, has the second highest incidence of HIV infection in the world; 1 in 4 adults have the virus. 95,000 children in Botswana have lost one or both parents to AIDS, and many of Ed’s kids also may not live to adulthood. Yet there are reasons for hope – thanks to programs sponsored by the government and its partners, the transmission of HIV from mother to child has dropped from 33% to less than 4%, and Botswana was the first country in Africa to provide universal access to antiretroviral drugs for all those infected. The problem is: how do you get an adolescent to adhere to therapy, when teens just want to be free, normal, and unshackled by rules?
The Teen Club at Baylor seeks to provide answers to that thorny question with a place of learning and fun, where HIV-positive kids can be accepted and embraced. The Club started in 2005 with 23 teens, and now has over 400 members, with a dedicated clinic staff and Teen Leaders who supervise classes in life skills, financial literacy and leadership, as well as pool parties, salsa dances, movie nights, and discussions about Love, Sex and Disclosure. For many of these teens who live in dread of stigmatization and rejection, just seeing other healthy, happy, normal kids who are HIV-positive is a life-changing experience.
Ed shared a letter with me from one Teen Club Team Leader: a 17-year old HIV-positive young man who lost his mother, father, and his adopted mother to AIDS, yet has still “developed an optimistic attitude towards life… I look after myself well, eat well, take my meds every day on time… I’ve had challenges in my life but I’ve managed to overcome them. I have accepted myself for who I am.”
“Thato” (not his real name) works as a counselor with the younger HIV-positive kids in Baylor’s Camp Hope, a sports, nutrition, and education program for kids 9-12. And he sees a bright future ahead. “For me, Teen Club was my second home, and still is, because those of us in the club understand each other, know each other and are proud of ourselves… I know I’m making my parents proud and the life I am living is the one they would have wanted if they were still alive … It is not a crime to be HIV-positive. It does not mean you’re excluded from the love of God.”
Teen Clubs have sprung up in multiple sites across Botswana and other southern African countries, following Baylor’s model, and are now the largest network of support groups for HIV-positive teenagers in the world. My $100 today goes to support Ed Pettitt in his work with Thato and other HIV-positive children whose courage amazes and humbles me. I hope you’ll join me.
To donate, click here.
And check out the Teen Club facebook page.