By Marie Da Silva, founder of the Jacaranda Foundation
My entire adult life has been affected by the AIDS crisis. It has ravaged my country, Malawi, killing tens of thousands of people—including 14 members of my family.
As it swept the country, the continent, the world, I realized organizations, governments, and the UN needed to take immediate and consistent action. I know this campaign requires grassroots efforts and work on the ground in order to help the children orphaned by AIDS, many of whom were born HIV positive themselves. Today, 36.9 million people in the world are HIV positive—and not all of them have access to treatment.
In 1997, I was working in New York as a nanny for talk show host and documentary film producer Ricki Lake. From America, I heard of more and more children in Malawi losing their parents. Some of these orphans were taken in by relatives, while others ended up on the streets, as they still do today.
Education in Malawi isn’t free due to the cost of school funds, supplies, and uniforms. Medical care and treatment for HIV is hard to access, especially in rural areas—although it is free. I knew in my heart that the children of Malawi needed me on the ground to build and grow a place for them to be educated, cared for, and nurtured.
Later that year, I returned to Malawi to be with my father, who was dying of AIDS. And in 2002, my mother and I started the Jacaranda School for Orphans in our family house to provide free education for AIDS orphans. After three years, we had 100 students. By 2008, there were 230 students, 98 percent of whom had been orphaned by AIDS.
In 2008, Jacaranda and I were given a gift: I was nominated as a top-ten CNN Hero. The award provided a platform to broaden our reach and for the first time, I received donations. We were able to develop the school and implement more sustainable programs that have had real impact, not just on one child’s life, but on the surrounding villages and communities.
Today, Jacaranda School is the sole primary, secondary, and tertiary education—and many other services—for more than 400 students. Each child receives two bowls of porridge a day, medical health care through our clinic, and home support targeting the most impoverished households and child-headed families. Jacaranda also provides microcredit loans to the children’s guardians. We host a library and literacy program for villagers. Soon, a vocational college will be up and running and a pre-school is in the works.
As of today, Jacaranda School has sent more than 35 students to college; many have graduated and are in qualified employment in Malawi. We have created a holistic approach towards providing education, fighting HIV, and building community support. We are establishing a model with the hope that it will be replicated around the world.
Yet, there is still not treatment for all. There are millions of other children in Malawi, across Africa, and around the world who don’t have a Jacaranda School to care for them. Efforts are being made by the UN, the State Department, the Clinton Foundation, and many other international organizations to change that.
One such effort, a team of social media influencers led by Ricki Lake, came to our school this past September to film #TreatmentForAll, a documentary campaign to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS. Ricki arrived at Jacaranda together with singers Megan Nicole and Wesley Stromberg, and social media influencers Melvin Gregg and Sam Wilkinson. It was a day of joy, promise, singing, and storytelling. All 435 children sang U2’s “One,” jamming with Megan and Wesley to create a promo for the documentary.
The documentary, which launched on the Facebook page of Ray Chambers, United Nations Assistant Secretary-General on November 30, 2015 (coinciding with World AIDS Day on December 1) features several of the children fearlessly telling their personal stories. Their plea for treatment for all is not one that can be ignored, nor is it exaggerated. It is personal.
Access to treatment is a game changer. We have the medicines—we just need to get them to all those infected. Deborah Brix, Ambassador at Large and U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, articulated this sentiment in the film: “We have all the tools we need that we’ve all dreamt of having.”
The time is now. I am doing this on the ground in Malawi. Watch #TreatmentForAll and take action. Demand that treatment be fast-tracked and the correct policy changes implemented to support 28 million people on treatment by 2020. According to the UN, this will reduce the number of AIDS deaths and new HIV infections by nearly 50 percent in five years and end the AIDS epidemic by 2030.
My efforts are a drop in the bucket compared to what #TreatmentForAll can do. Yet, my effort is like a stone causing the ripple, creating the change. One drop at a time. Won’t you join me in creating this change to eradicate AIDS for good?
Learn more about the Jacaranda School for Orphans at jacarandafoundation.org.