It's estimated that about 15 million children under age 18 have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS. Most are in sub-Saharan Africa, with two to three million in South Africa alone. One organization is taking steps to prevent the country's AIDS orphans from becoming – what it calls – a lost generation.
Cynthia Schweer, head of the US branch of the Starfish Greathearts Foundation, describes what the organization means by "lost generation."
She says, "A generation of children that have to raise themselves in child-headed households, a generation of children who have no access to education, a generation of children who essentially have no ability to go out and find a job and care for their own families."
And that, she says, can have a profound effect on South Africa.
"Well, the country of South Africa is actually the largest economy in sub-Saharan Africa. So you can imagine that South Africa and the success of that economy have a huge impact on the region as a whole. So if South Africa cannot raise up a generation of children to take over that country and lead that country into a prosperous economy, then it's going to have an impact all over the continent and beyond that as well," she says.
Schweer says concerned South Africans saw the danger posed by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
"Starfish actually started in 2001 when a group of South African ex-pats that were living in London really discovered that this problem was hitting their country very hard. And when they went back to discover how they could have a large impact on their country, they realized that orphans were really going to become a lost generation if they didn't find a better way to address the issue," she says.
The better way, she says, was to find community organizations that were doing a good job of helping AIDS orphans and provide them with training and funding. She says Starfish believes community-based care works best for two reasons.
"The first is that children who grow up within their communities (and) are allowed to stay with their siblings and extended family members have a much greater chance of understanding families and communities and becoming productive members of society. But secondly, with a problem this big, and with the numbers of children in the millions, just in terms of a scalable and cost-effective way of caring for these children, the community-based model has really emerged as being the best," she says.The Starfish Greathearts Foundation also focuses on children affected by HIV/AIDS through education, health care and other basic social services. It calls the effort an investment in South Africa's future.