In South Africa, where AIDS is claiming millions of lives, Ryan and Gerda Audagnotti are saving children one at a time.
Sarah's room is brightly decorated and immaculately clean. On her bunk bed is a mound of fluffy toys. Her cupboard is packed with new clothes. In the garden of her suburban home are a swimming pool and a jungle gym. When Sarah comes home from school, she brings a friend from down the road to play.

In many ways Sarah, 6, lives a normal middle-class life in suburban Johannesburg, South Africa's largest city--one that children in the shantytowns not far from her home can observe only on television. Yet Sarah's life is abnormal for the family into which she was born. The life she lives now is the outcome of a change in destiny.

Sarah's home lies on the banks of a river in the leafy suburb of Bryanston. The fence with the neighboring property has been removed, and there is a gate that leads to a third home. In the backyard of the middle home near the river, Moima leans over a bar of a jungle gym, head on the ground and one foot in the air.

Closer to the river 3-year-old Tshepo pendulums back and forth on car-tire swings pushed gently by volunteer Sylviane Hoare from Houston. There is even a brightly colored train engine, large enough for a 2-year-old to sit astride. Inside a third home, at 29 Royce Road, volunteer Claudia Pieroth makes a large serving of popcorn, which six energetic 3- to 5-year-olds eagerly devour.

Sarah is an orphan. She was 18 months old when her mother abandoned her in Sebokeng Hospital, a disadvantaged area near Johannesburg. She could not walk and was left to lie in her cot all day. Her belly was extended, and she suffered night sweats. Sarah could have become another statistic; instead she was brought to the home of Ryan and Gerda Audagnotti.

Gerda Audagnotti says God had been speaking to her about doing something for the thousands of South African children orphaned as a result of the AIDS pandemic. Success in their financial planning business in 1997 allowed the Audagnottis to own two houses in Johannesburg, one of which they decided to use as a home for abandoned babies.

"The Lord led us to open the doors of our own home for abandoned and AIDS babies in August 1998," Gerda Audagnotti says. "Often my heart was touched by the plight of orphans all over the world. After the birth of my fourth child, Charissa, in 1997, I was overwhelmed by the sense that there are babies that are not loved, held and cared for."

The Audagnottis were inspired by a book titled Acres of Diamonds written by Russell H. Conwell, who in the 19th century founded Temple University and Hospital in Philadelphia. Conwell started the hospital simply because there was an overwhelming need for medical care. He launched the project with one nurse and a small, rented consulting room.

"The point was to get started," Gerda Audagnotti says. "This was so inspiring. I mentioned to Ryan, 'We have the home; let's just start this project.'" They registered with the provincial department of health, made alterations and opened Acres of Love at 31 Royce Road in Bryanston.

A Home for the Homeless

Sarah was one of the first to arrive. In the five years since Acres of Love was launched the organization has cared for more than 200 children and has grown to include the houses on either side of the home at 31 Royce Road and another across the valley in the suburb of Olivedale. Most of the children have been adopted, but Sarah has stayed. This is because she is HIV-positive. Few will adopt a child with a terminal condition.

As operations director at Acres of Love, Janis Evans oversees two housemothers and their staff. "Until this morning we had 32 children. Now there are 31," she says, sadness showing in her bright eyes.

Sonnyboy was only 6 months old when he passed away in the early hours of that Wednesday morning, September 3. The night staff was with him at the time. An abandoned child with full-blown AIDS, he had arrived less than two months before.

"The only way I'm able to cope is that I know they have gone to a better place," says Evans of the children who die in her care. "At least he was properly cared for in his last few months."

Almost all the children who are brought to Acres of Love by the police, social workers or hospitals have tested positive for HIV. Yet in the five years Acres has been operating, only six have died. The six were already in critical condition when they arrived at the haven. Workers attribute this low death rate to the high standard of care they give the children brought to Acres.

"There is nothing more rewarding in life than giving of oneself," Evans says. "I could never do this alone. Every day I ask God for strength and wisdom. It has to be the Lord every moment."

From the beginning, the Audagnottis decided to care for the children God brought to them as if they were their own, says Tony Palmer, development director of Acres of Love. One of the first things they do is a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) HIV test.

The South African government tests for HIV status using an Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay, which tests for antibodies to the virus. This works well in adults, but children still have antibodies in their blood transmitted from their mothers.

The PCR test reveals whether or not the virus is present. In this way the majority of children who come through the doors at Acres of Love--who often are referred to the ministry by health authorities because of their supposed HIV-positive status--test negative for HIV and are therefore more readily adopted.

"To me the most amazing thing is seeing the destiny change in these children," Palmer says. "One child was found by a township community in a pit latrine among the urine and feces. The child was brought to Acres of Love and is now living in Europe, adopted by a family there."

There are many such stories at Acres. Children are found wandering in parks, living in outhouses or dumped in garbage bins. "Mark was brought to us last December," Palmer says. "His father [had] been let out of prison and discovered that there were more kids at home than when he left. His wife had died of AIDS while he was away.

"Mark, being the extra child, was kicked out of the house. He literally lived with the dogs. When he came here he couldn't look me in the face," Palmer says, "and he stank of urine. When I saw him later on that Friday afternoon, he had been cleaned up, had brand-new clothes and sandals, and was bright and shiny. I said to him, 'Do you know that today your future has been changed forever?'"

The majority of the children who pass through the doors of Acres of Love have been adopted by Christian families in South Africa, Belgium, Sweden, Germany and Canada. "I've never been disappointed in the parents," Evans says.

She tells the story of Sello, who could dribble a soccer ball for an hour. When the portfolio of his potential adoptive parents arrived from Europe there was a picture of his daddy-to-be suited up and standing proudly with his soccer team.

Children who are not adopted become part of the Acres family. "Right from the beginning we decided not to do a little for a lot, but a lot for as many as we can," Palmer says.

And a lot is what they do. Sarah lives at 33 Royce Road with nine other girls. "Every child that comes here lives in a suburban home with a maximum of 10 people," Palmer says. "It is a safe environment with qualified caregivers."

Sarah and her "family" eat three solid meals per day thanks to donations from South Africa's top supermarket chain. "Even my own child doesn't eat as well as these girls eat," says Phumzile Ntombela, a caregiver at Acres of Love.

There is more than one reason the children are given quality nutrition. Children with AIDS are put on Hyper Active Antiretroviral Therapy (HAART), a highly active combination of three antiretroviral drugs. "You can't give full HAART therapy without proper nutrition," Palmer says.

"For the children who stay with us, we are committed to care for them right through to their first university degree, which we will fund," he adds. "That's the only way we can break the cycle of poverty. We hope that in the future they will be people who give back into communities."

Palmer works hard to educate the wider community, helping people to understand that children living with HIV have a future. "Medically it is true that with the correct antiretrovirals, we can extend the life span of someone for 30 years," Palmer says. "In five years' time this could be increased with new drugs, and there may even be a cure in the future."

Sarah is living proof. She is the oldest child at Acres of Love, and although she has been HIV-positive for 5.5 years, she has not as yet needed treatment. She lives in a stress-free environment where there is love and care and good food every day.

An Army of Compassion

The children at Acres of Love appear happy. Every day volunteers play with the children, sing with them, teach art, help with their homework and generally befriend them."Without the community the children would live in a very sterile environment," Palmer says.

"Acres of Love couldn't exist without the volunteers," Evans adds. Most volunteers are wealthy housewives and students from the community.

"In the government institutions there are hardly any volunteers because they are depressing places to be," says Eve Machabi, the government social worker who is involved in Acres of Love.

"At Acres of Love children have food, toys and parties on their birthdays. In the government institutions the children sleep in large dormitories with 20 beds in them, and there is only one birthday party a year for all the children together."

One lack that is becoming more evident, however, is the absence of male role models. As several of the boys approach the age of 6, it is becoming crucial that Acres of Love start recruiting men to spend time with the children. "The fact that before Tony [Palmer] came they called every man 'Mommy' says something," Machabi says.

A number of the older boys have recently been moved into the new house across the valley. Liz Hulsbosch, who oversees that house, says she could use all the help she can get.

One challenge caregivers at Acres of Love have, as at any orphanage, is to prevent the older children from acting out on younger children the abuse they received. This is part of the reason Acres of Love does not admit any children older than 5. As they grow older, past abuses start to emerge.

"Acres of Love needs a psychologist to help the children with the trauma they have experienced," Machabi says. "They still miss their parents. They need closure. They need to know that their parents are never coming back, and there is no full-time social worker to help them through that. Some of them don't know why they are here. Someone needs to orientate them."

The children may not have a psychologist yet, but they do have the help of medical professionals--and as Machabi says: "The children know how to pray and believe in Jesus. Janis prays for them, and that makes the place unique."

Several medical professionals volunteer their time for the children, including a pediatrician and a physical therapist.

The entire Acres of Love program runs on donations, not just from the local community but also from the United States. Gerda Audagnotti says 90 percent of the funding for the operating costs comes from the United States. Churches in Texas, Alabama, Florida, California and Washington, D.C., support the project. This funding has become available because the Audagnottis now live in the United States, where Gerda Audagnotti works full time, and Ryan part time, raising funds for Acres of Love.

The Audagnottis' relocation came about when, six months after launching Acres of Love, Ryan was involved in a near-fatal horse-riding accident.

"On his deathbed, on life support, we were told by the medical staff that he would not live due to the severe injuries to his lungs," Gerda Audagnotti says. "At this time the Lord strengthened my faith with the Scripture in Psalm 41:1-3: Blessed is he who considers the poor. The Lord will deliver him in the time of need and trouble. The Lord will protect him and keep him alive. The Lord will refresh and strengthen him on his sickbed and restore him from his bed of illness."

Ryan experienced a miraculous recovery, and the Audagnottis decided to move to the United States to pursue a lifelong dream of living and working in America. They set up a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with the aim of doing development work in the United States.

"We are building a bridge between the vast resources in the United States and the needs in South Africa," Gerda Audagnotti says.

Although they started small, the couple has a massive vision. The cost of operating a single home--including mortgage, salaries, medication and transportation--is only $6,500 per month. By the end of next year they hope to have secured funding for the operation of 12 additional homes that will give 200 or so children a winning start in life. And that is just the beginning.

The Audagnottis plan to multiply the work in other sub-Saharan African nations and elsewhere. "Within the next five years we would like to see 200 Acres of Love homes prospering in countries that need it most," Gerda Audagnotti says. "Our long-term goals are ambitious, but we are certain we will see the vision of 1,000 Acres of Love homes become a reality in our lifetime."

Spreading this model around the world may well take the Audagnottis and their team a lifetime. For young Sarah, however, they've already made a lifetime's difference.

Deadly Statistics

Because of the spread of AIDS, half of all South Africans under the age of 15 could contract HIV.

Sub-Saharan Africa is the worst-hit region in the world with regard to HIV-AIDS. A September report by the Joint United Nations Program on HIV-AIDS (UNAIDS) said an estimated 29.4 million people in the region have HIV-AIDS. In 2002 the epidemic killed 2.4 million people there, and 3.5 million were infected for the first time. According to a 2001 report by Christian Aid, sub-Saharan Africa is expected to have 43 million AIDS orphans by 2010.

The most affected part of this region is southern Africa. For a number of years South Africa President Thabo Mbeki questioned the link between HIV and AIDS, and for a time his government refused to provide treatment for those who were HIV-positive. According to UNICEF figures for the end of 2001, 5 million people in South Africa are living with HIV-AIDS, 250,000 of whom are under age 14.

The AIDS education organization LoveLife estimates that if infection rates continue as they have, more than 50 percent of all South Africans under the age of 15 will contract HIV. South Africa has more than 300,000 AIDS orphans, a figure set to rise to 1 million by 2005.

Tony Palmer, development director at Acres of Love, a Christian ministry to children orphaned by AIDS, said the situation, though still critical, may not be as grim as it seems. He said because South Africa does not keep public records of HIV infections, figures are based on statistical projections that do not take into consideration three important HIV-AIDS prevention strategies expected to reduce the rate of infection in the near future.

First, figures are based on an enzyme test, which for children gives a higher HIV count than the more accurate Polymerase Chain Reaction tests, which check for the presence of the actual virus and not just the antibodies to the virus.

Second, if the controversial LoveLife sex education campaign funded by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation reaches just 20 percent of its target market--South African teens--it will save 2 million lives in the next five years.

Third, the proposed government treatment campaign to make antiretrovirals available to the population is likely to make a significant impact on the rate of infection as antiretrovirals make HIV-positive people less infectious.

Color Is Only Skin Deep

A South African mother shares how she rediscovered the power of redemption after she adopted an AIDS orphan.

We had finally come to terms with the fact that medically we would not be able to add another member to our family. My husband, Grant; 11-year-old son, Garreth; and I were looking into adoption. We did not believe it would be possible to love another person's child like our own and did not consider a cross-racial adoption as an option.

In January 1999 I decided to become involved at Acres of Love, a home for abandoned babies. I do so for two reasons: It was an extension of my work as a crisis pregnancy counselor, and I longed to hold a baby. I thought this would be a good opportunity for the latter.

On my way to Acres of Love I prayed: "God, please let there be a little girl there for me to get involved with. If she were white that would be a bonus, and no HIV would be great."

Just before I arrived there I said, "Oh, if I could ever bring her home for a weekend, what should we call her?" The answer that came to me immediately was "Joy." I smiled and thought that certainly wouldn't have been my choice, but it would be OK.

At Acres, I was told they had a baby in mind for me. The mother had attempted to abort at 30 weeks, but somehow this little one survived. The staff took me to meet the baby. It was a girl. She was black, and she had HIV.

I thought, God, one out of three is not really good! I touched her hair. It was so soft--just a mass of black curls. I asked what her name was, and they said, "Her name is Joy."

I was overwhelmed. When Joy woke up, they let me hold her. I was amazed at how dark she was--her eyes, skin, hair, even her gums. She was the most adorable baby I had ever seen.

On my way home I phoned my husband and told him what had taken place. I asked him to come back later to meet little Joy. At 5 p.m. Grant, Garreth and I made our way back to Acres of Love to see Joy. She mesmerized Grant. Garreth loved the way she clung to his little finger.

After the second visit to Acres, I felt the most incredible love for Joy. Grant was desperately trying to be "rational," and yet every spare moment we had was spent visiting Joy. Acres saw the bond growing stronger and guided us with wisdom. We began the adoption process.

Bringing Joy home was incredible. Grant and I felt love, joy, fear, reservation and enthusiasm. The responsibility of having a different race baby with HIV was enormous. Somehow our fears did not seem to matter.

In May 1999 we received the incredible news that Joy's HIV status had changed--she was clear! It was a glorious day.

We have learned so much since Joy became part of our lives. Color really is skin deep. We could not love Joy more. We never believed we would ever love another person's child like our own--we were so wrong. Joy really is our daughter and Garreth's little sister.

She is doing well. Her first love is definitely music, followed closely by story time. For various reasons we have changed her name to Abigail, which means "the Father's joy."

We realize there will be challenges ahead, but quite honestly, this little life that God saved and hand-picked for us is worth it.

SOUTH AFRICA

Population: 40 million

Racial mix of population: 77 percent black African; 11 percent white; 9 percent mixed race; 3 percent Asian and other

Total number of languages spoken there: 32

Languages in South Africa with Bibles or Scripture portions: 21

Number of Pentecostals in South Africa in 1960: 400,000

Number of Pentecostals in South Africa in 2000: 3.5 million

Number of South Africans infected with the AIDS virus: 5 million


David Larsen is managing editor of Africa Media Online and head of The Media Bank, which publishes two South African Christian newspapers. He lives in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.

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