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S. African Couple Helping One HIV-AIDS Child at a Time - 2004-07-08

In South Africa, the work done to support people infected with, and affected by, HIV-AIDS has been overshadowed by the many controversies that have marked the country's response to the pandemic. One group that is dedicated to helping the youngest victims of AIDS is called Just One Child. VOA's Delia Robertson visited the group's headquarters and filed this report.

Two-and-a-half years ago, Cliff and Cherryl Brooke, a white couple from Johannesburg, were living a comfortable life, proudly watching their three daughters grow to adulthood, enthusiastically engaged in their professional lives and in community work at their local church.

Cherryl Brooke says the HIV-AIDS pandemic raging primarily in black communities was passing them by, and it was not something they felt concerned them. Then, one day, her 22-year-old daughter Chantel invited her to go to a home for babies with AIDS.

"Yes, my daughter did go [to the home], and I did say, 'I'm not interested in this, you go, and you get on with life.' And I used to go to church and Father would always be talking about AIDS. And I used to say to myself, 'well, this actually has nothing to do with me,'" she said.

That changed soon after her daughter's visit to the home for babies with AIDS. Chantel, who was studying to be a social worker, brought a four-month-old baby home for a visit. The boy, named Bernard, was very sick and needed care, and the Brooke family fell in love with him, so much in love that Cherryl and Cliff adopted him.

And with that, Bernie, as he came to be known, propelled them into the world of HIV-AIDS, and the many babies and toddlers who are orphaned, abandoned or neglected because they or their parents are HIV positive.

The Brookes converted their garage into a nursery, and before long they had a second baby to look after, and then a third and a fourth, and more. They hired caregivers to help out, and they formalized their initiative, calling it Just One Child. A few of the children have since rejoined their own families. Others have been adopted, but Cliff Brooke says those are mostly the ones who may have lost their parents to AIDS, but do not have the disease themselves.

"It's the ones who turn out not to be HIV infected, that are adopted. But when they are HIV infected, then, obviously, people don't like to adopt them," he said.

As a result, says Cliff Brooke, they realized they would need to plan for the HIV-positive babies who were not adopted to grow into toddlers and remain in their care. So, they took out a mortgage and bought a house, which they have called Thabang, the SeTswana word for Place of Joy.

"The children that are HIV positive here, will ultimately go there, and they will stay there, and we will look after them, until whatever happens in the future," he said. "Maybe a cure comes about, and we are able to get them healthy and well. Otherwise, they will stay there until their last days. That is the very reason why we went for the second house."

Simon and Mavis Mbuysia are the house-parents at Thabang. They currently have eight toddlers in their care, including 18-month-old Siyabonga, who at birth had been wrapped in a plastic bag and dumped in a garbage bin by his distraught mother. The Mbuyisas had also been concerned about the growing number of children left orphaned or abandoned as a result of AIDS, and leapt at the chance to help when they were approached by Cherryl Brooke. Mavis Mbuyisa says being able to care for the children at Thabang has been a life-changing experience.

"You know what, as a person, I want to tell you something, I think it heals me," she said. "I feel happy every minute, and I enjoy every minute of doing this. And I wish I could grow even more. I wish we could just have more children, and look after more children and help more children."

In the two years since the Brookes launched Just One Child, they have helped several mothers and 33 children, 18 of whom are currently in their program. One has died of AIDS.

Monthly costs, including mortgage payments for Thabang, are about $2,500. They receive a monthly grant from the state of $50 for each child. The rest comes from private donations. Cliff Brooke says that he never knows in advance if he will have enough money to cover the next month's expenses, but that somehow each month sufficient funds come in.

In addition to local benefactors, some of their funding comes from the Catholic community in Newport, Wales in Britain, and from an Australian community.

Cliff Brooke says people just need to be shown how they can help.

"I've said to so many people, everybody wants to help with the HIV pandemic in South Africa, but people just don't know what to do. If they're told what to do, or told, 'listen you can help by coming and holding a baby, or buying nappies [diapers] or by donating formula,' they will do it," he said. "And we have seen that. We have seen that, without a doubt, people are very keen to help, if you tell them what to do, and they see what they can do."

The Brookes recently bought two more facilities. One is a home in a lower-middle class suburb, which currently offers sanctuary to five HIV positive mothers with their babies. The other is a former old-age home with grounds large enough to build more homes for children infected with, or affected by, HIV.

According to the latest data from the United Nations, five million South Africans are HIV positive, and there are 1.1 million children younger than 17 who have been orphaned by AIDS. But the Brooke and Mbuyisa families believe that the only way to tackle such an immense problem is by helping just one child at a time.