Students Saving Lives

CHICAGO Some local students went on a mission to Africa as part of the We Act Exchange Program. While their goal was to highlight the care for HIV and AIDS patients in adolescence, they ultimately got a lesson in geography, humanity and friendship.

At Gallery 37 in downtown Chicago, the young students are saving lives as they become global citizens. They are creating artwork that has become a labor of love the shells of these dolls are made in Rwanda thousands of miles away by women who have been infected by HIV and AIDS. But they are stuffed and completed in Chicago, then sold for $100.

"When the doll gets sold, it provides antiviral medicine for three months. Without it, she would not survive. It goes so far that these women can do so much for her family and for her co mmunity," said Elizabeth Watson, Evanston High senior.

"Knowledge is power, and the more we know, the less we fear, and the more we can protect ourselves and service people who have HIV and AIDS," said Sonja Henderson, teacher.

Henderson and Watson were part of a special group that traveled to Rwanda to provide support to women suffering from HIV and AIDS. Once they arrived in Rwanda, they were greeted by families whose lives have been affected by HIV and AIDS.

"They kiss you three times, hold your hands and hug you for a very long time. So it makes you feel accepted, no matter who you are, no matter what you have, they don't know me from Eve, but they still love me," said Jamillah Mobley, Lindblom senior.

That was the inspiration behind a mural the girls created outside a pharmacy in Rwanda that treats HIV and AIDS patients. It's called Amahoro, which means peace. It depicts the skylines of Chicago and Rwanda and the power of a unified mission.

"It's just like this trip and how we are coming together and then becoming one," Mobley said.

Some of the children now live in orphanages because they have lost their parents to AIDS.

"The best reward was to spend time with the people of the communities and the kids, bond with them in a very special, opening way," said Yonetta Littlejohn.

The girls also toured a genocide museum and learned the history of how HIV and AIDS are spread in their country.

Josiane Mahoro says during genocide women were raped and men used HIV and AIDS as a weapon. Men would get medication in jail while the women were left to die. According to the United Nations, three to five percent of the Rwandan population is HIV positive as compared to .02 percent in this country.

Visiting America gave the girls a chance to forget about their pain and focus on their purpose. It was the first time the Rwandan girls had been on a plane or even saw tall buildings.

"That was my dream. I always told then I would go to America," Charlotte Rwema said.

During their weeklong stay, the girls worked on another mural at the Core Center called Weaving Connections and learned traditional dances from both continents.

"By seeing them together, the HIV and non-HIV, it promotes itself confidence. Girls already get sick. They think they will die. Now, they get medicine and extend their lives and share a lot of things," said Felicite.

"I think we are the future, and we need to do more to prevent the disease and to educate people about it and reduce the stigma of having it. And I think a trip like this ensures that will happen," Watson said.

Extra Info: The dolls are sold at:
Gallery 37 Store, 66 East Randolph, Chicago
The Jewish REconstructinist Center, Evanston
The Architect's Wife, 626 Davis St., Evanston; 847.733. 1500
The Things We Love, 614 Davis St., Evanston; 847.475.4910

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