Marin County man brings hope to South African kids

December 24, 2009 9:10:32 PM PST
A Marin County man and his wife are bringing hope to children in South Africa who are living with AIDS by showing the children a side of their own country they have never seen.

Robert Shea and his wife Jawaya are on a day trip in Cape Town, South Africa, with children suffering from a number of life-threatening illnesses, including HIV and AIDS.

"When I was working in the States, there was a big need for it there, but until I came out here and seen the greater need, I couldn't turn my back on it, I had to do something about it," Robert said.

"We have an HIV prevalence of about 24 percent in this country, which is horrendous," Jawaya said. "It is a big problem because here we have poverty and a lack of resources, so even when children are diagnosed, they don't always have access to treatment immediately, so they get infected with tuberculosis, sometimes meningitis or worse."

Robert is painfully familiar with AIDS. He is infected with the disease. His son from a previous marriage, Robert Jr., is also infected.

Jawaya does not have AIDS. She works in Cape Town at the Red Cross children's hospital. She and Robert met and fell in love at an AIDS conference in Washington and later got married.

"We discovered we were doing very similar things; he was working with children out in California doing camps and I was raising 12 boys in my home," Jawaya said.

Together they founded the non-profit Our Fertile Ground to help children who are infected with the AIDS virus as well as those affected by it.

Their goal is to create a permanent residential camp for children as a safe haven, where kids can play and not have to think about being sick. They are modeling it after Bay Area camps, including Camp Sunburst and the Taylor Family Foundation's Camp Arroyo.

"So that we can have these camps routinely, either every week, every alternative week, have family camps," Jawaya said.

ABC7's Cheryl Jennings' family and friends helped sponsor a recent outing. They spent part of a vacation in Cape Town on a humanitarian mission so they could learn more about the children's situation.

The children and the counselors live in the slums of Cape Town, called townships. There are miles and miles of tiny shacks.

"Being poor is bad, being poor and being ill is even worse, being poor and having HIV is really unpleasant, because you not only get teased, but people will ostracize you, they don't want to have anything to do with you," Jawaya said.

Many of the children living with HIV or AIDS in South Africa are not even told they have the disease. They are told they have something else, so they will get sympathy, instead of rejection.

"We went into a home recently where there were eight people living in a two room shack, the adults were sexually active, children see this, and so their sexual debut is really early in some of the townships, sometimes it's forced," Jawaya said. "There are other ways children get infected, horrible ways, through child sexual abuse and that's just the reality here."

Robert and Jawaya are trying to raise nearly $1 million to buy a property in Klein Waterfall, near Cape Point along the southern tip of South Africa. It is not easy, because they are living on Jawaya's salary while Robert finishes his psychology degree.

Jim Hallinan, the conservation expert who owns the land, is planning to retire in a couple of years. He wants his family home and land to be used to help the children. It is in a nature preserve just 45 minutes from Cape Town.

"You have all the comforts of a modern city, at the same time, you've got nature at your door step," Hallinan said. "To be able to bring them out to a place like this is quite special."

The kids and counselors on a recent day trip had never seen the ocean or any of the incredible beauty of South Africa, including the world famous Table Mountain in Cape Town. And they have never seen the wild animals that draw tourists from around the world.

"I've grown up in the townships, I've never had an experience like this," Andile, one of the counselors, said. "Now people are beginning to talk more about this disease and I feel it's kind of a good thing, you know."

Robert Jr. and his friend Nate Fegette produced a video about the Our Fertile Ground camps. They are aspiring film makers. Robert Jr. is planning a big, bright future. That is a message Robert Sr. and Jawaya want to send to South African children with AIDS.

"You can live a normal life with this, that you can be somebody, that you can work and achieve a goal that you want to have," Robert said.

"If there's lots of information about this disease, maybe at some point, it will drop down and maybe we can live in an HIV free generation, that would be good," Andile said.


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