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Fighting AIDS, Child by Child

Family raises funds for AIDS charity.

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For their annual World AIDS Day Concert, Amy and Alec Zacaroli of 25:40 invited Mavis ‘Momma’ Zita, a nurse from an AIDS clinic in Hamburg, South Africa, to tell stories about her work.

Patrons of 25:40’s annual World AIDS Day concert had a special visitor this year, the matron of one of the clinics the organizations’ funds help to support.

Lovingly called "Momma Zita" by Amy and Alec Zacaroli, the founders of 25:40, she told of the work she and other clinic monitors and nurses carry out in South Africa, where Dr. Carol Baker began her clinic seven years ago.

"Because I was the matron of the hospital, I was the one responsible for introducing her to the community," Zita said at the Zacaroli home last week, during her first trip to the United States.

Back then, the clinic in Hamburg, on South Africa’s Eastern Cape, was among the first to treat AIDS patients in the largely rural region. People were not aware of antiretroviral drugs used to treat AIDS, and those who knew they were infected did not know what was making them sick in many cases.

Baker changed all that, Zita said, by bringing nurses, education, treatment and compassion to countryside.

"I think Dr. Carol is the Mother Theresa of our area," she said.

Baker introduced Momma Zita to the Zacarolis during one of their first visits to Hamburg in March 2005.

The Zacarolis started 25:40 in 2003 as a way to raise money and awareness of the AIDS epidemic in South Africa through fund-raising walks and concerts in Fairfax County. Their philanthropy has resulted in a handful of trips to Hamburg to visit the clinic they help to fund, the nurses who treat the growing number of AIDS-infected adults and children and to ensure the children orphaned by AIDS have loving homes to care for them.

EARLIER THIS YEAR, the Zacarolis started a new phase of their work in South Africa, building a concrete home for a family of 21 people, including 16 children. Half of the residents of the new home are HIV-positive.

"They were living in a tin shack with mud floors," Amy Zacaroli said. "We knew we had to do something. Hopefully, we’ll be able to build more homes next year."

Zita helped the Zacarolis find the right family to help, knowing there are many who are worthy of such a gift.

"This family, it’s an old lady with a lot of children. Her husband died. No one is working, they were living on her one pension check," Zita said.

She knows where most of the neediest families are in Hamburg, knowledge gained by making rounds in villages looking for people of all ages infected with HIV.

Additionally, Zita trains other clinic workers, called monitors, to be able to make those same trips into communities even farther away, hoping to reach even more patients.

Their efforts are working, she said, as patients who began treatment as infants are slowly but surely getting healthier, stronger, gaining the chance to live longer than children diagnosed only a few years ago.

"People are flocking to Hamburg from Johannesburg and Cape Town because they heard about our center," Zita said. "If it were not for assistance from groups like 25:40, we would have collapsed years ago."

Those patients are returning to their families and sharing the health tips with their villages, helping the clinic’s work reach even more people.

But there are people who still refuse to learn the truth about AIDS, or take the medication that Baker used to pay for out of her own pocket.

TRAVELING WITH Zita was Nkululeko, a 14-year-old boy who was living with his young aunt after his mother and grandmother died. He is HIV-positive.

His aunt did not want to be a mother, Zita said, and while he had a large extended family, no one was available to care for him. Baker took him in and made sure he received treatment and went to school, but boys will be boys, she said.

"I have to make sure he takes his medications every day, but sometimes he tries to trick me by hiding the pills under his tongue and not swallowing them," Zita said.

What teenage boy would want to admit having a disease that could kill him, when his friends are running around unencumbered by worry, she said.

And then there are children like Teaspoon, a girl who earned her nickname because she was so malnourished when she arrived at the clinic with a large head and a tiny body.

During the first 25:40 concert in 2005, Amy Zacaroli told the story of Teaspoon’s treatment and recovery, steadily gaining weight and strength and miraculously reaching her first, second and third birthdays.

When Zita arrived, however, she brought with her the news that Teaspoon had died. She believes an untreated bout of tuberculosis may have killed her, but will not know until she returns to South Africa.

"The last time we saw her, she was just the sweetest, bravest little girl," Zacaroli said. "It’s heartbreaking to know she’s gone."

Familiar with watching healthy children fade away from AIDS or related illnesses, Zita tried to offer her sympathy.

"Sometimes we have hopes, but the hopes don’t come out," she said.

But the Zacarolis, along with Zita and Baker, are determined to continue their work, with concerts, fund raisers and a family trip to South Africa next August.

"We hope to boost the number of monitors the clinic has available to go into the villages," Zacaroli said. "We’re also hoping to help the clinic be open more often. Right now, they’re only open once every two or three weeks, probably because they don’t have the money for it. But when they are open, people line up to visit."

The Zacarolis are also paying for a nurse to stay with the clinic for a year. Rachel Johnson, a student from Toronto, will stay in Hamburg until September 2008, working with the nurses while Baker tends to other villages.

Despite a smaller attendance for this year's concert, Zacaroli said she was happy with Zita's presentation, which she believes gave a very real face to AIDS in South Africa.

Joining Zita at the concert were Christian recording artists Scott Zacaroli and Hugh Wilson, who performed songs from their latest CD, and a dramatic performance by Doug Taylor and his wife, who have assisted with the concert for each of its three years.

"We were in Bible study with Alec when he made the decision to start 25:40, and it has become his passion," Taylor said. "This is what he wants to do, and I feel we should support him."

Although he is not able to visit the clinics in South Africa, Taylor thanks the Zacarolis for bringing the stories of those they help to Northern Virginia.

"We all share in the small victories like Teaspoon's and the eventual sorrows that come with AIDS, also like Teaspoon's," Taylor said. "We share with them as they come back and tell the stories of the lives we touch, the joy they feel knowing

that these strangers far away take interest in their lives and well being."