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North Carolina Teen Uses Family's Personal Connection to Kenya to Make the World a Smaller Place


Thanks to the efforts of Rob Stephens, 19, young people in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, now have a greater understanding of the HIV/AIDS crisis in faraway Africa - and how it affects us all.

Rob Stephens was no stranger to Africa when he set out to educate his peers about the impact the HIV pandemic is having on that continent. Indeed, the entire Stephens family has a very personal connection to Africa. "My family has lived in Kenya as missionaries," he says. "(We) adopted two kids from Kenya. So I have a little brother and sister from there who were orphans."

Rob's African brother became an orphan when his biological parents in Kenya died from AIDS-related illnesses. It is a story that is becoming increasingly common in Africa, and Rob Stephens says it is having a devastating social impact on the region.

"Orphans weren't a problem before, because the community took them in, and there were social structures that just kind of took care of these kids, whether the mom died or the dad died," he says. "AIDS has kind of devastated all those social structures. And what we have now is 13 million AIDS orphans in sub-Saharan Africa." Stephens refers to the situation as "a Lord of the Flies effect," from the William Golding novel about a group of boys stranded on an island after a plane crash. "What it creates is an entire society of really old people, and then really a bunch of kids."

After spending a summer in Kenya, volunteering at an orphanage there, Rob Stephens - who was just 17 years old at the time - returned to North Carolina, determined to share the joys and sorrows of his experience with his peers. He visited all eight high schools in his county, where he spoke to students about the AIDS crisis in Africa and how they could help. He organized a state-wide charity basketball tournament to raise money for the New Life Home for Orphans, where he had worked. He also purchased beads from a women's shelter in Nairobi, and then gave the beads to artistic students in the Winston-Salem area. The students made jewelry, which was then sold to raise money for the orphanage.

"We realized that it had to be creative, because they've seen stuff on TV, but there had to be a way that we could link what they were interested already in with what I believe is a huge crisis," Rob says. "People don't just want to hear about it in America - that's what we found, the students. They want to do something about it. That's how they actually get interested, if they can affect it. If they can't affect it, they're going to ignore it."

Last year, with the help of his parents, Rob Stephens arranged for 20 students and five teachers to visit the New Life Home for Orphans in suburban Nairobi. This year, he is doing the same, using money he received as part of a Global Action Award that is given out annually by the non-profit group, Net Aid.

Rob Stephens says the trips to Kenya have helped young people in Winston-Salem realize not only that they can contribute something positive to life in Africa, but that life in Africa can give something positive to them.

"My generation (of Americans) has the highest depression rates that we've ever seen. There's all these problems of teen suicide, there's (the) Columbine (school shooting), there's tons of things that we have problems with, even in our comfort," he says. "It's been phenomenal how this has kind of transformed students' lives. And maybe they won't work on AIDS, but they're more globally aware, and they're more excited about life and hopeful."

Time and again, 19-year-old Rob Stephens has been told that he has "made a difference." But Rob insists that is not unusual.

"You know, they say everyone can make a difference. And I think that's true," he says. "But I think everyone does make a difference. People don't realize that their decision not to do something makes a difference. All these little decisions that we make, make a difference, and it can be active or passive. So once you know that no matter what, you're already stuck making a difference, you might as well make it good."

For earlier profiles in VOA's
American Profiles series click here