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South Africa Peace Corps Changes To Meet AIDS Scourge - 2001-09-22

The Peace Corps celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Thousands of volunteers have worked around the world in that time. But the face of the Peace Corps is still changing and adapting to the times. A new pilot program in South Africa is designed to help people in rural areas fight the very modern scourge of HIV and AIDS.

Grace Mashaba never really knew her parents. She grew up on a farm in eastern South Africa, in what today is the province of Mpumalanga. She endured years of sexual abuse at the hands of the white man who ran the farm. That was during the height of apartheid, and an uneducated black farm girl had very few rights. Finally, she ran away.

"I went to live in the street in Barberton. I was sleeping in the back of the hotel. And waking up in the morning, washing at the tap, walking to school, about five kilometers to school," she said. "And then I would just go straight to the cafe and eat the leftovers, which people had eaten; I would clear the tables."

Grace Mashaba, who is in her mid-thirties, says her background compelled her to care for other children who have nowhere to go, and no one to turn to. Today, she runs an orphanage called Peace Haven. Most of the 52 children currently staying there call her Mom. She considers them "her kids." Some of them have lost their parents to AIDS; others are neglected and abused. Some are addicted to drugs. Nearly half of them are HIV positive.

Ms. Mashaba receives some funding from the government, and she has gotten help from private donors in the 10 years since she started Peace Haven. But more children keep coming, and she will not turn them away, even if there is not enough money. Her resources are stretched to the limit.

This month, she got help of a different sort. An American Peace Corps volunteer named Mary Jo Reimer arrived to begin her two-year mission. She does not work directly with the children, though. Instead, she works behind the scenes to help Peace Haven grow and prosper.

"My direction here is to accomplish structure in the administration end of it, so that we have measurable ways of showing the government that the money they're using to fund this organization is in fact being utilized properly, and is effective," she said. "And so, that really is my mandate and assignment from the Peace Corps. It's capacity building of the NGO and sustainability, so that when I leave in two years, this place will be solid. And also, I will have trained somebody to take over those particular responsibilities, which frees Grace up to do what she does best, which is look after the children."

Ms. Reimer says she has just about the perfect background for the job. She is a retired nurse who spent years working with dying AIDS patients in central Los Angeles. Before that, she worked in accounting and business management.

Ms. Reimer is 66 years old. She admits she does not fit the stereotypical image of a Peace Corps volunteer as primarily young and idealistic. "I'm 66, I'm not a vegetarian, and I don't wear Birkenstocks [sandals]! I think that you're finding that more and more. Because we retire at an age where we're still vibrant and healthy. And I don't want to sit around in my rocking chair at age 85 and say, well I could've [done something]. It was just, I really felt a calling to come over and contribute."

Peace Corps officials in South Africa call Ms. Reimer the new face of the Peace Corps. She is taking part in a new pilot project aimed at helping local non-governmental organizations fight HIV and AIDS at the grassroots level. The average age of volunteers in the program is 47.

Ms. Reimer says her family supports her decision to drop everything and move to rural South Africa. "I had made several sharp right turns in my life, like when I went to nursing school at the age of 56. My kids, they're sort of accustomed to me making sharp right turns in my life," she said. "And so I've been very independent, I've raised my children by myself. And they didn't really question so much as they were just sort of [as they just said to themselves], "Whoa, here she goes again."

In addition to the work she does with Peace Haven, Ms. Reimer says part of her job is to blur the color line in a country that is still very segregated, seven years after the death of apartheid. She lives under the same roof with Grace Mashaba and the orphans in the town of Malelane, on the border of the famed Kruger National Park. She says local white people are not sure what to make of her.

"It's very interesting. They're just absolutely stunned when they hear that a white woman is living amongst black people. One woman even said to me, Peace Corps must pay you a lot of money," she said. "And so I clarified that. I said no, we volunteer, we're doing this for nothing. And it really was stunning to her."

Despite years of work with AIDS patients in America, Mary Jo says she was not quite prepared for the way the disease is ravaging South Africa. Intellectually, she knew what she was up against. But with tears welling up in her eyes, she says experiencing it is another matter.

"There's a little girl right now in a local hospital, four years old. And she's dying. And there's no help for her," she said. "Nothing. No pain medication. And we just pray that she dies quickly.... I mean to see that. Like I say, you can read it in a book. You can think about it, you can look at statistics. You can read and know the reasons South Africa doesn't have the anti-retrovirals [drugs]. But to see a four-year-old girl disappear, nothing prepares you for that. Nothing."

So far, the AIDS NGO pilot program is limited to this part of eastern South Africa. Mary Jo Reimer and 12 other volunteers will remain in Mpumalanga province for two years. But the project director says there is already a lot of interest in expanding it, both to other parts of South Africa, and to other countries battling the scourge of AIDS.