February 29, 2008

Faith-based group brings AIDS exhibit to valley

LODI -- Babirye and a twin sister were born on the floor of a mud hut in Uganda, a nation where acquired immune deficiency syndrome appeared more than 25 years ago.

Her sister was the picture of health; however, Babirye suffered from frequent illness and her skin broke out in open sores similar to the sores on her father before he died.

In time, a heartless landlord evicted the girls and their HIV-infected mother, forcing them live on the streets until a church gave Babirye food and a pew to sleep on.

A free exhibit at the First Baptist Church in Lodi tells the story of Babirye and other children who live with the horrors of AIDS in African nations, where 25 million people are infected with the human immunodeficiency virus.

According to the United Nations, 15 million children in

Africa have lost one or both of their parents to the disease that destroys the human immune system.

The touring exhibit, "World Vision Experience: AIDS," opened Thursday in the church's gymnasium and runs through Monday, from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.

Lodi was chosen after the church requested the exhibit be displayed there. It is the closest stop to Modesto, and the interactive exhibit moves from Lodi to Portland, Ore.

"It was heartbreaking," said Chantel Thomas of Lodi who was dabbing tears after taking in the experience. "I didn't want to go into the next room because I was afraid of what it was going to be."

World Vision is one of the faith-based organizations fighting the spread of the disease in Africa with funding from the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. The nonprofit group, known for its appeals to sponsor needy children in Third World countries, has received $180 million in government funding since 2004, so it has a stake in President Bush's request to more than triple PEPFAR funding in the next five years.

Congressional leaders and the White House agreed this week on a bill to authorize $50 billion for the global AIDS program.

World Vision said it created the exhibit to let people in North America witness the tragedy of AIDS in Africa. Visitors are given headphones to listen to the stories of one of four children -- Kombo, Babirye, Emmanuel and Mathabo -- as they walk through replicas of African village life.

Participants hear stories inspired by true events, about children losing parents to AIDS, suffering from poverty and malnutrition, and living among people who are wasting away from the disease.

The exhibit is divided into four "life paths," all of which lead to a health clinic, where test results reveal if the child is infected with the virus.

Some items in the rooms are artifacts from the African countries, including objects owned by the children, said Dean Owen, a spokesman for the tour.

"One child has a bucket and it is really the kid's bucket," Owen said. "He gave us the bucket for the exhibit and we bought him a new one."

After completing the 20- minute experience, participants step into a room and they are invited to post a prayer or message on the wall. They also are given the opportunity to sign a commitment to sponsor an African child, at $35 a month, or make a donation to purchase bicycles for volunteers who go from village to village caring for AIDS victims.

Organizers expect 3,000 to 4,000 people will experience the exhibit during the five-day run. Lodi is the 24th stop on the national tour that began in 2007 and will be seen in 80 cities by the end of this year.

Some critics have questioned whether Bush's AIDS relief plan has been effective in controlling the epidemic in the 15 developing nations where it's focused. The prevention programs are limited to an ABC policy, stressing abstinence, being faithful to your spouse and instruction in condom use when it's deemed appropriate.

A yearlong investigation backed by the Center for Public Integrity concluded the rules hindered efforts to control the spread of HIV among prostitutes and excluded human rights groups that work with commercial sex workers in Africa.

U.S. lawmakers reached a compromise this week on a new bill that relaxes the requirement for abstinence education.

World Vision's education program attempts to delay teenagers from becoming sexually active, but instructs sexually active teens in condom use, Owen said.

To control the spread of HIV along truck routes in Africa -- the so-called "AIDS Highway" -- the organization urged trucking firms to allow drivers to take their spouses on long-haul trips, said Jonathan Brown, tour manager.

World Vision said much of its PEPFAR funding was distributed to a consortium of nonprofit groups running AIDS projects in Zambia. World Vision uses sponsorship donations to provide food, clothing and other assistance to African children. It does not distribute drugs to treat AIDS, but may assist infected children in getting the drugs at publicly funded clinics, Owen said.

World Vision officials say they hope the traveling exhibit will put the AIDS pandemic back in the public consciousness. Groups from local high schools and community organizations are planning to visit it.

It had a profound effect on Sandra Pearson of Farmington. "I thought it was very moving," she said before signing up to sponsor a child. "We should do more as Americans because of our abundance."

The exhibit is at First Baptist Church, 267 N. Mills Ave., Lodi. From Highway 99, take the Turner Avenue exit in Lodi, go west on Turner a couple of miles, then south on Mills.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or 578-2321.

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