Five young Americans spent two months traveling across the United States recently on a two-month bus journey. But this was not a romantic cross-country trip of self-discovery. These five youths were on a mission to raise money to combat AIDS in Africa. VOA's Suzanne Presto caught up with the five during their travels in Washington and has more.
The driver of a yellow school bus revs its engine. A black-and-white mural painted on the bus's side shows children's faces, the phrase "Close the Gap," and a large number "three."
According to the UNAIDS organization, nearly three million people were newly infected with HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa last year. Nearly three million people around the world last year died of AIDS.
Five young Americans spent two months of their summer on this renovated school bus. They traveled across the country, with stops in 23 U.S. states, and speaking engagements at dozens of schools, churches and youth rallies.
The five share one mission -- educating young Americans about the AIDS crisis in Africa.
Eighteen-year-old Nathaniel Elliot came up with the idea after he learned a sobering fact.
"Two years ago, I found out that, by the time I graduated high school, there would be more than 40 million people HIV-positive, and mostly in Africa, and, for some reason, that grabbed me (caught my attention)," said Elliot.
So, the teenager decided to see what he could do to help.
"Originally, my friend and I had always planned, just for the fun of it, to drive across the country -- just because, no reason, just fun for our senior year,” Elliot explained. “But, when I found out that fact, I realized we could use it for something good, and not just our own pleasure. And, through that, the idea of building schools came around, you know, spreading awareness is a major goal."
Elliot spread the word that he was looking for people to share his mission of educating young Americans, and getting them involved. An anonymous donor gave him the bus. And about 30 people applied for the trip. Elliot helped select four of them, ages 17-to-23.
During the coast-to-coast trek, the five young men stopped in Washington to speak at a Christian youth rally.
They look like average college-aged boys -- short hair, shorts or jeans. But they stand apart from the thousands of young people in the crowd. They are each wearing a bright orange-and-black T-shirt emblazoned with a map of Africa and the name of their mission motto: "Living Hope."
Twenty-three-year-old Derick Henderson explains the reason for their cross-country journey.
"We're traveling to raise awareness, and to raise money to help orphans in Africa,” said Henderson. “And the money we raise from traveling in this bus will provide schools for them to go to."
At every stop along the way, they raise funds to build schools for children affected by AIDS in the southern African nation of Zambia. And they urge young people to get involved in helping others.
Chris Franklin gets excited as he paces the floor, speaking to youths assembled for this seminar.
"We want to get our whole generation to do something,” exclaimed Franklin. “We want to get our whole generation to come together, and say, 'We care!' "
Franklin says the five are motivated by their shared Christian faith and a desire to help Africa, a continent they have separately visited on mission trips.
"We have two (main) goals and one small goal. Our first goal is to raise $250,000, which is to build schools down in Zambia. Part of the biggest thing to combat AIDS is education. Our second goal is spreading the awareness of AIDS. And our third goal is just to say, 'Hey, it's time that our generation starts caring,' “ said Franklin.
Another member of the team is Scott Brookens, who is the group's video and Web master. He tells the gathered crowd that he documented the trip, and posted videos on the Web site, www.Lhbustrip.com.
"I love telling stories, and the way I do that is through the medium of film," Brookens said.
And 17-year-old Tommy Francovitch is a natural, speaking to crowds at their educational and sales booth at the Washington conference.
"Every 60 seconds, in the next minute, five people will die in Africa alone from AIDS," Francovitch told visitors to their booth.
In addition to speaking at these youth rallies and conferences, the young men sell DVDs, bracelets and T-shirts bearing the name of their mission -- Living Hope. They say they are teaming up with a non-profit organization, called World Vision, and all the money they raise will go to building schools in Zambia.
Eighteen-year-old Josh Arthur heard the youths speak in Washington. "I've learned a lot about the epidemic through them, and they bring it to a more personal level, through some of the videos they have taken and the work they're doing," Arthur said.
The Living Hope bus is an attraction in itself. People donate money to sign the bus's roof, or to have their pictures taken alongside the bus's painted exterior.
But no one spends more time inside this bus than the five youths. They sleep in bunk beds, update their itineraries at their desk, and dine from the microwave and mini-fridge on board.
"It's actually very cozy, and we look forward to staying in our beds,” Henderson noted. “So, wherever we stop, what we really need is just a place to shower, but as far as accommodations go, we got them."
The five young men managed to raise $40,000 during their travels. That was short of their goal, but they said it is enough money to build one school in Zambia. The five are all back in school now. But they say they are determined to continue raising money and AIDS awareness.