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Walking for AIDS

Burke couple's charity helps fund orphanages, hospitals in South Africa.

Burke is about as far from South Africa as possible. Yet, for Amy and Alec Zacaroli, the needs of children suffering from AIDS there are as close as their own children. "Alec lived in South Africa until he was 10 years old and a few years ago, he got in touch with one of his old friends who was coming to the States for business," said Amy Zacaroli. "His friend brought with him a video his wife had shot of an orphanage there, before children were getting medicine for AIDS. It just broke our hearts," she said.

The Zacarolis started the 25:40 Foundation to raise money for those children and countless others who have lost parents and loved ones to the disease, or may be dying themselves. This Saturday, they will host the second annual 25:40 Walk at Lake Accotink Park to raise money to give to the hospitals, doctors and orphanages they have adopted in order to ease their pain and make life a little easier.

"The children in the video we saw had no hopes of living past the age of 10," she said. "We felt it was our calling to help out."

The foundation's name comes from The Bible, Matthew 25:40, a verse emblazoned at the top of the group's Web site, www.2540.org: "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me."

The Zacarolis travel to South Africa at least once each year to visit with orphans, talk with doctors and make sure the money they raise and donate is being applied to the best and most immediate needs.

"We like to hold this walk not only to raise money but to increase the awareness of what AIDS is really doing in South Africa," Amy Zacaroli said. Last year's event raised about $5,000, but this year, she's hoping for a better turnout of people and donations, helped along by donations from such corporate sponsors as Independence Air, Trader Joe's, Caribou Coffee and Whole Foods.

"The money we raise goes to four partners in South Africa," Zacaroli said. "We help a pediatric AIDS clinic at a hospital in Cape Town and there's a day care center with about 80 children. We also help an orphanage that houses about 15 kids in the town of Hamburg, which is a very rural town we've pretty much adopted," she said.

The remaining money goes to a doctor who has recently opened a center for AIDS patients.

"Carol Hofmyer has created a trust that we put money into to help with her work," said Alec Zacaroli, who remembers his life in South Africa during the last stages of Apartheid and understands the plight of those suffering in his former homeland.

"When I left there, I sort of lost touch with how difficult life can be," he said, now a lawyer in Washington, D.C. "When my old friend came here to visit, I saw the faces of children and it brought so many things home for me."

CREATING 25:40 as a way to help children was a natural thing for him and his wife to do, Alec Zacaroli said.

"When you hold these children, you realize they have the same hopes as our children, they're all the same. When you realize that, you know you can't ever turn away from them ever again."

On a trip to Africa, the Zacarolis witnessed firsthand the suffering and horrible conditions AIDS victims live in, "that galvanized the importance of getting involved," Alec Zacaroli said. "AIDS and other disasters are wiping out populations and destroying infrastructures."

With a population bombarded in the past few years with images of destruction from Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami in Sri Lanka last winter and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Zacaroli said it's easy to forget that AIDS kills more people in Africa every year than those three events combined.

"We're quick to become attuned to compassion but it's hard to see it on a day-to-day basis," he said.

The Zacarolis' four children, Nicholas, 10; Sophie, 6; Hannah, 4; and 2-month-old Rebecca, will grow up learning about the AIDS pandemic and helping their parents with the foundation, he said.

"Nick has gone to Africa with us and it did effect him," said Alec Zacaroli. "His personality is such right now that he doesn't wear a lot on his sleeve, but he got to see a different world and a different people."

Following one trip to Africa, the Zacarolis brought in a slide presentation to their church. After seeing images from the orphanages and hospitals, Charlene Agne-Traub felt compelled to help them with 25:40.

"It's a whole different culture there in terms of protection and health education," Traub said. As a health education professor at George Mason University, she understands the importance of telling young people how to care for themselves and the necessary precautions to prevent the spread of AIDS as well as the consequences that come with ignorance.

"They're doing a great thing to help one small segment of the population in Africa combating both poverty and a tradition that allows for the disease to spread," she said.

To encourage some of her students to get involved, Traub said she will offer extra credit points to students who participate in Saturday's walk. "This is an international world and every little bit helps," she said. "I teach about AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases — I've got a professional and religious interest in helping the poor and less fortunate."

"Alec and Amy are doing this out of the kindness of their own hearts," said Thomas Kim, a volunteer with 25:40 who has known the Zacarolis through work with other nonprofit organizations.

"I'm very careful about the things I give my time to, and their organization is something very in line with where my heart is," he said.

After seeing some "on the ground reports" the Zacarolis brought back from Africa, Kim said he volunteered to help with their Web site and "do whatever I can" to help out.

"Last year at the walk, we had a 25:40 banner that all the kids signed and when Alec went to Africa, he took the banner," he said. "Anything to make a connection and let them know they're cared for by people here."

Living in the affluent world of Northern Virginia, "it's easy for people to just write a check or even get lost in our suburban life," Kim said. "Amy and Alec really want to reach out to the children they've met. Their whole organization is about actively reaching out to those kids."

In the future, the Zacarolis are thinking of working to open an orphanage in South Africa, Kim said. "The more local organizations that try to help out and be a part of this, the more we can do to help."