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Brazilian Presbyterians Seek to Help Children With AIDS
PCUSA NEWS <firstname.lastname@example.org>
28 Oct 1998 20:16:27
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Brazilian Presbyterians Seek to Help Children With AIDS
by Alexa Smith
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -When Paolo Sergio Carvalhaes flips through the pages of
his photo album, he points out children and names each one - "Jessica ...
Pamela ... Rafaela" - most already diagnosed as HIV-positive, some with
infected sisters and brothers.
There are other pictures too.
A young HIV-positive prostitute stands in front of her tiny wooden
house. She consented to the photo only when Carvalhaes promised it would
not be shown in Brazil, where it might scare off her clients. Another
picture shows a 26-year-old widow whose husband left behind the virus that
killed him and infected two of their five children. He did not leave money
to pay for gas to cook meals or for electricity to light the shack where
she lives on the city's edge.
The photos were shot in Sorocaba, a city of more than 400,000, not far
from Brazil's capital, Sao Paolo. There Carvalhaes works as a volunteer
director of a church-run day-care center for HIV-positive children. It is
called Children of Bethlehem, Carvalhaes says, as a reminder of another
slaughter of innocents that people were too frightened to stop centuries
ago. The killing of Bethlehem's children forced a man named Joseph to flee
during the night with the infant Jesus to the safety of Egypt.
The problem with today's killer - AIDS - is that there is nowhere to
flee. So the Sao Paulo Presbyterian Church - a medium-sized congregation
of the one million-member Presbyterian Church of Brazil (IPB) - opted to
create a place where HIV-infected children may safely stay.
At Children of Bethlehem, the $1,000-per-child monthly cost for
medicine is covered for the first three months, (then the city underwrites
those costs). Dentists work on the childrens' teeth, and psychologists help
them talk about their feelings. They have plenty of food - five meals a
day to be exact - something that is not guaranteed at home. Social workers
pay regular visits. Volunteer gardeners grow the vegetables used to fill
baskets that are delivered monthly to families with children in the
The day-care's van picks up the children each morning just after dawn,
when their mothers, who are most often domestic workers, leave for work.
The van takes them home at dusk, when their mothers return from work. Each
day there is time for stories and learning the alphabet and, perhaps most
poignantly, there are other children who will play with them.
"These children are craving affection," said Carvalhaes. "They suffer
discrimination - for instance, their neighbors won't play with them.
Mothers - often right in front of the children - will say, `Don't play with
her, you may get sick.'
"One family [in the program] is completely cut off from a grandmother.
She just doesn't want them to visit," he said. Community pressure has
persuaded some local authorities to bar HIV-infected youngsters from
attending public school.
Such is life in the families of Brazil's poor, where statistics show
that seven of every 100 babies is born HIV-positive - one of the highest
continuing rates of infection of children in the world. Though public
clinics try to document HIV-infection, the virus often spreads unnoticed
among the poverty-stricken in Brazil, who have a harder time getting
adequate medical treatment and maintaining hygienic living standards. Many
pregnant women avoid treatment in hopes of keeping their diagnosis secret
and avoiding the predictable social stigma. Others simply lack the
necessary bus fare to go to the public clinic.
In Sorocaba alone, authorities estimate that 60 children are born each
year with the virus, which is transmitted either during pregnancy or birth.
Twenty-eight children - from babies to age seven - are currently being
served by Children of Bethlehem. Six of these children - who are orphans
or whose parental custody has been revoked by the courts - live there.
Twenty-six volunteer laypeople and eight full-time staff run the center's
ministries, from driving the van that transports the children to weeding
the vegetable garden that is used to provide the monthly food baskets.
The disease is now in remission for six of the children who have been
in the day-care program, according to Carvalhaes. He has been with Children
of Bethlehem since it opened its doors in 1995, when church members became
sensitized to the problems within HIV-infected families.
The church's program began with a chaplaincy service to HIV-positive
pregnant women. "We helped them cope spiritually," said Carvalhaes. "But
the greatest anguish of the mothers ... was the future of their children
once they were born. That was the worst part. They were so poor, and no
one would receive them in their homes."
As the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s liaison to Brazil, the Rev. Eddie
Soto says, "There is complete social stigma involved."
That stigma has affected the center itself, where the rent for Children
of Bethlehem runs more than it would be for ordinary tenants. And it keeps
going up. As a result, Carvalhaes and the church's volunteers are building
another facility on land donated to them by the city on the outskirts of
Sorocaba. The objective is to accommodate immediately at least 50
children. A longer term project is to build a school for children blocked
from attending public school.
The school would also give the center's medical and chaplaincy staffs
access to older children. Now seven is the age limit for treatment, because
of the center's financial and staff limitations, Carvalhaes said.
Ground is to be broken on the new $125,000 day-care center soon after
the first of the year. Fund-raisers and education programs are under way
now. Recently, a group of local lawyers ran a marathon to call attention
to AIDS education. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has pledged $50,000 to
the project and established an Extra Commitment Opportunity (ECO) account(#
047981) to receive donations specifically for Children of Bethlehem.
Funds to support the original facility came through a grant from
Presbyterian Women of the PC(USA). According to Soto, the PC(USA) is
considering supporting a mission service position at the day-care for a
full-time U.S. nurse.
"These people have their own lives to live," said Soto of the
volunteers who staff the day-care center and run its multiple programs.
"They have their own families to support, their own kids to care for. Yet
they sacrifice their time and resources to help these kids who wouldn't get
help any other way. They see this not as a job but as a ministry."
Gaining the trust of family members of the children takes time,
Carvalhaes told the Presbyterian News Service. Since HIV-positive adults
usually are wrestling with anger and depression and denial, on top of
Sorocaba's grinding poverty. "One of the things that happens with AIDS -
and the possibility of death - is that a lot of people close themselves up
and don't really talk about it. Right now, the kids prefer not to think or
talk about it," he said.
"They just keep clinging to life."
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