In Kenya, former Burke resident Ted Neill met a 5-year-old girl, suffering from HIV, who turned the tide on a Belgian film crew filming a documentary. The girl, "Mary," had two siblings who died of AIDS and was taking care of a mother who was dying. Tears are effective in a documentary, but Mary's story of perseverance in the face of death left the film crew in tears.
"By the time Mary was finished, the whole camera crew was crying," Neill said.
That acceptance of the circumstances surprised Neill, 25, who went to Kenya to work with Nyumbani Hospice and Orphanage. In a world where electricity and running water are a luxury, Neill learned a lesson from looking at the Kenyans’ attitude. They accept life the way it is and have a certain harmony, no matter what the situation is. In the United States, Neill sees people worrying about terrorism, poverty and power outages, which are all part of life in Kenya.
"It's all there, they just roll with it," he said. "Despite living in horrible circumstances, something keeps these people going."
Nyumbani was founded in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1992 by Fr. Angelo D'Agostino. The orphanage was inspired by the rising number of HIV-infected children born and too often abandoned in Africa, its Web site stated. Neill set out with ideals about saving the world but ended up facing life and death situations all the time.
After seeing his fifth dead body on the streets of Nairobi, Neill realized saving "the whole world" was overwhelming, so he now limits his area of concentration to the 91 children at Nimbi, who have been orphaned by the AIDS epidemic that's sweeping Africa.
"No matter how much I do, there's always more suffering," Neill said.
Looking at the positives in a situation like this doesn't come easily, Neill admitted. With two or three children dying at the orphanage a month, Neill was overwhelmed last spring and came back to Burke for a while to grapple with the situation. It was a time of self-pity and feeling sorry for himself.
As a teenager, Neill had spent much time at the Oriental Sports Academy in Burke, so he went over to the familiar grounds of the gym. He ran into instructor Sadie Breor after an aerobics class. When he set out for the gym, he wasn't armed with a sales pitch. He just needed someone to talk to.
"I unloaded my whole story on her," he said.
Now Breor sponsors one of the children in the orphanage, a 17-year-old with AIDS.
"I trusted his integrity. He came walking in, and we ended up talking," Breor said.
Neill also talked to Tim Stout at the gym, who was his Tae Kwon Do instructor all through high school and was influential during Neill's teenage years. Stout feels the teachings helped form Neill's character.
"Tae Kwon Do philosophy is respect," Stout said, but he credited Neill's parents also. "I reinforce the same ideals, but he's made all the initiative."
Neill graduated from Georgetown University in 2000, where his mother, Cathy Neill, is a nurse. While at home in the spring, he visited her at work and spoke to her boss, Dr. Edmund Pelegrino, who helped him narrow his efforts. Pelegrino is a physician at the Georgetown University Center for Bioethics. Neill came out of the discussion with a different insight into his goal in Africa.
"The world's a very big place, you can't take on too much. It helped me put my problems in perspective," Neill said.
Pelegrino has a reputation around the hospital.
"He's a very humane person. They call him the father of medical ethics," Cathy Neill said.
IN KENYA, Neill has found a home at the orphanage and feels his help is making a difference in that little corner of the world. Once a month, he needs to get away from Africa and back to the Western culture, so he goes to the shopping mall in Nairobi, which is very international.
"In a sense it looks like Springfield Mall, but with a lot more color," he said.
Neill returns to Kenya on Oct. 9 but had a few objectives while here. One was a fund-raising dinner, honoring a friend, Kristof Putzel, a University of Connecticut graduate, who made an award-winning documentary while at the orphanage. Neill showed it to students at Paul VI in Fairfax, from which he graduated in 1996. At the dinner, he also honored Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) for his efforts with aid to Africa. Neill also contacted Fairfax Circle Baptist Church, whose funding led to the founding of a school in Kenya that helps with the efforts at Nimbi.
Sometimes Neill looks out at the mountains near the orphanage, which are the same mountains Ernest Hemingway wrote about in "The Green Hills of Africa." Although he's halfway around the planet and worlds away from Burke, it gives him a sense of familiarity.
"I can see them from the orphanage," he said.