By Marion Bunch, Rotarians for Family Health and AIDS Prevention (formerly RFFA)
World AIDS Day 1 December holds special meaning to me. I lost my second born child, Jerry, to AIDS early in the American epidemic (1994). At that time, the disease was so stigmatizing, I felt quite lonely not being able to discuss Jerry’s illness with anyone outside my family. I never thought I’d do anything about it until one day, three years after his death, I felt a tap on the shoulder and a voice in my ear said “mom, get up and get going, you haven’t done anything, and it’s been three years.”
It was an epiphany of a moment that completely altered the course of my life.
In 1998, I was propelled into taking the first step to begin a project in my Rotary club. The fact that our club president said ‘yes’ to my idea made me a passionate Rotarian for life! From the start, I realized that finding partner organizations in the field of HIV/AIDS would be important because Rotarians are not AIDS experts. I created a partnership program with a local AIDS service organization whereby together, we provided AIDS education in the middle schools of Georgia. This sobering program has now been seen by 450,000 students!
My interest ultimately took me to Africa in 2001, where I quickly realized the huge disparities between America and the developing world. I was struck by the hugeness and the filth of the slums in places like Nairobi, Kenya. I realized that there are 20 million orphans living there now because their parents died of the consequences of AIDS. They have little to eat, they are often shunned by their community, and they drop out of school because they don’t have the funds to pay the schools fees or get uniforms.
I was also amazed at the reception given me in African countries by fellow Rotarians who were so glad to welcome an American Rotarian woman who was interested in working on this issue. The year was 2001. I ultimately began a Rotarian Action Group recognized by the RI Board of Directors in 2004. It was so rewarding to meet thousands of Rotarians out in the world that had an interest in doing something about this disease!
Today, I look back and realize what an incredible journey I have been on since then. I gained ideas from public health experts, and I met people that I’m sure God put in my path because I didn’t have the knowledge or good sense to even know that I should be meeting them. I have gained mentors in many parts of the world on this issue. I got to thinking that the ‘partnership’ concept was the right way to approach helping the children and their families. We can’t do things alone but must work together to really get something done.
The action group (now known as Rotarians For Family Health and AIDS Prevention) is in its third year of doing a huge health event in Africa, which takes place in May 2013. We will provide free health care services of all kinds (from HIV Testing to Polio immunization, tuberculosis and malaria screening, etc.) to 200,000 children and families at 400 different sites in three countries, all during a three-day event led by Rotarians from 365 clubs. The action group has obtained partnerships with The Coca-Cola Africa Foundation, the Center for Disease Control, USAID, at least 100 non-government organizations who provide the medical work, Delta Airlines, and the Ministry of Health in each country. Can you believe it?
I’m certainly not a genius and have faced many challenges along the way. But I have never lost my passion because I remember all the challenges that my son realized when he was alive. That drives me as it would most moms. But most importantly, I have been able to achieve this work because of the power of Rotary’s brand and the respect it receives everywhere. I am so proud to be a part of this organization!!