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US and Ugandan Grandmothers Help Raise AIDS Orphans


About a dozen people in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, will be packing aid supplies and heading back to Uganda this week (5/21-25/07) as part of a 100-person group called Grandmothers Beyond Borders. They’re trying to help grandmothers in Africa, who are taking care of youngsters orphaned by the AIDS epidemic. Voice of America’s Chuck Quirmbach reports from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

AIDS has killed millions of young and middle-aged adults in Africa, putting hundreds of thousands of grandparents back in the role of full time caretakers for children. Two years ago, Milwaukee resident Amy Peterson heard a radio report about an 80-year-old African woman named Mary who had lost 14 children to AIDS and was raising 10 grandchildren.

Peterson made the following observation about the report on Mary: “And she said she felt abandoned and alone in the world, and it touched my heart. And I thought of my own mother who's a grandmother. I thought of all the women in this community that I knew who would probably respond to her story.”

So Peterson and several friends - some of them grandmothers- decided to do something. They formed Grandmothers Beyond Borders, to collect and send supplies and financial aid to help Mary and women like her.

Through her job at the Milwaukee Catholic Archdiocese, Peterson networked with a diocese in Uganda, which helped the group identify 34 grandmothers and one grandfather who could use their assistance. They made their first trip to Uganda last May taking bedding, soap and some other basic supplies.

Uganda native Yvonne Ssempijia who's lived in Milwaukee for 20 years, is proud to be a member of Grandmothers Beyond Borders.

She says what the group is doing is more rewarding than just writing a check, “To show them that we really care, because I could have my sister in Illinois and send her money, clothes … it's not the same like when I go and visit and see [how] they are living, the conditions."

Schoolgirls are some of the orphans Ssempijia and Peterson met and videotaped during two trips to Uganda. The school near their village of Kasawo offers scholarships. But as one grandmother explains on the tape, finding the money to keep the girls in school can be difficult.

Yvonne Ssempijia says it's vital to keep teens, especially girls, in school, "Our fear is they're going to get pregnant because if they're wandering around they're going to get pregnant and chances are they might get AIDS, then that will raise the issue of grandmothers raising great-grandchildren … so that's an issue that's really scaring us.”

That motivates Grandmothers Beyond Borders to keep up and try to expand their fund raising efforts, even if it takes them to some unusual places. For example, just before midnight at an improvisational comedy club in Milwaukee, Amy Peterson sits at a display table and talks about the group's website, “Grandmothers Beyond Borders” with someone waiting to see the show. And a few minutes later, the club emcee Dylan Bolin makes a pitch to dozens of patrons: “… and by coming here tonight, you too are supporting Grandmothers Beyond Borders. Allow me to tell you what you're supporting…"

Amy Peterson says Grandmothers Beyond Borders made about 600 dollars that evening. Overall, the group says it's raised about 28-thousand dollars. That's not considered bad for a grass roots project, but Peterson says she realizes it's small compared to what's needed to help all the elderly caregivers in Africa, “If you look at the big picture, you would be paralyzed and you wouldn't do anything. But if each of us did a little bit, the world would be a much better place. Ours is a project of the heart and that's what we're attempting to do.”

Grandmothers Beyond Borders is exploring a partnership with a larger but similar Canadian foundation run by Stephen Lewis, a former UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa.