Marin County men team up to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa


The men will be on a small team to raise funds for a program called Our Fertile Ground, which provides support for children with life-threatening illnesses.

"We see the bicycle as an empowerment vehicle. It's a way to give people personal freedom and mobility and liberty that nothing else can give them," said Founder and CEO of San Rafael-based Mike's Bikes Ken Martin.

Martin is joining Marin County dad Robert Shea in Cape Town, South Africa, for the big charity bike ride.

Robert is using sports to help kids and families cope with the AIDS crisis in the Cape Town area. Entire families are affected and don't talk about it. The stigma makes it too dangerous.

"Some, the deeper rule there, is you can get killed if they find out your status," said Shea.

A number of children and adults with the Our Fertile Ground program participated in last year's charity ride. It's called the Cape Argus Cycle Tour and Shea is helping them get ready for this year's ride.

Shea and his wife, Dr. Jawaya Shea, work with children and families suffering life-threatening illnesses and who live in dire poverty. That's what their non-profit is trying to change through the power of the bicycle.

The 11 shops involved with the Mike's Bikes foundation shipped more than 10,000 bikes to Africa in less than seven years. And Martin has seen the way a bicycle can change a life.

"Like with Robert and with our sister shops, where the bicycle, through the bicycle, we're able to teach people a skill. So it's something they can bring to market themselves and, you know, find employment at some point. From people who can now get to work, who weren't able to get to work within 3 hours of their house," said Martin.

My family and I saw the way Jawaya and Robert Shea's non-profit changed lives back in 2009. We met some of the families in the program in South Africa.

The children had never seen the ocean, or the wildlife that tourists come to photograph. We learned that most families don't even tell the children they have HIV or AIDS.

"They're getting ready possibly to be sexually active, you know, not knowing their status. They think that they have a bug in their blood; cancer, everything but the truth," said Martin.

Robert Shea's son, Robert, Jr. knows about the stigma of HIV and AIDS.

"They didn't think I'd live past [3-years-old], yeah and every year they kind of have told me the same thing," said Robert, Jr.

He and his dad are both living with AIDS. I met them when Robert, Jr. was just six-years-old at a program called Camp Sunburst for children with HIV and AIDS. It was back in the early 90s when many Americans were afraid of the illness. And most children died.

Robert, Jr. just turned 24. He's been to South Africa to talk with the kids and show them why he's proof that AIDS is not a death sentence anymore.

"Definitely the medication and a big support group system. Having lots of friends is very key thing," he said.

The Our Fertile Ground dream is to buy land near the Cape Point coast for a permanent camp site. It's also right next to a popular bike route. It's a natural charity and business fit.

"Many people go through the Cape Point area on a daily basis, riding and practicing for other races," said Shea.

Not everyone can make it to South Africa for a charity bike ride, but there is a way you can participate in the wonderful program. It's as easy as donating an old bike.

"It's hard for Americans to visualize, 'ok, there's this problem 10,000 miles away. There's an African kid with HIV, he's getting bullied and he's getting his, the HIV drugs stolen from him.' Americans can't really wrap their head around that. But, we can say, 'ok, a bicycle is something that can connect us,'" said Martin.

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