It’s a number that’s almost impossible to imagine: worldwide, more than 150 million children are living outside of their family’s care. Perhaps even harder to imagine is that -- through no fault of their own -- a disproportionate number of these boys and girls also suffer from HIV. Salesian missionaries in India and Uganda have launched two new projects to begin addressing this critical issue.
“Many of these children are on the street because of their diagnoses,” observes Father Mark Hyde, director of Salesian Missions. “Their very own families have abandoned them out of shame and stigma -- a stigma that is even more pronounced among the other homeless youth.”
Shunned by their peers -- who otherwise may have offered a small amount of protection -- these children face great risk: violence, exploitation, human trafficking and substance abuse. And, with little opportunity for adequate daily nutrition, and no proper long-term care to manage their condition, they face the grim and very real prospect of early death. This is why our Salesian missionaries have begun to intervene on their behalf.
In India, for example, missionaries have launched the Don Bosco Care Home in Tamil Nadu. Because existing public health centers only accept children under the age of 8 who suffer from HIV/AIDS, Salesians saw an opportunity to provide the health and wellness care so crucial to many of the youth already participating in their programs. Today, more than 60 children over the age of ten live at the home.
“Often, the children are referred through the public hospitals,” says Father Daniel Sebastian, director of the home. He notes that many arrive undernourished, with stunted growth and a general distrust of others.
Under strict medical supervision, these girls and boys receive antiviral therapy as well as specific diets to help them gain and maintain a healthy weight. Clinical psychologists are available to help them overcome the trauma of their experiences and develop the skills they need to cope long into the future, as functional members of society.
Once they are strong enough, children have the opportunity to attend school. Staff at the home are committed to each student throughout high school and university, in order to guarantee their success and chances for finding employment.
“We are very excited about the success of this program, and are eager to engage in the continued care of these youth,” says Fr. Daniel. “We’ve learned that our strength in youth development, psychosocial counseling and coalition building has an enormous potential to truly change the lives of homeless children suffering alone with this disease.”
Similarly in Uganda, the Don Bosco Children and Life Mission (CALM) in Kampala has opened its doors to young boys infected with HIV/AIDS.
“This is particularly important, as Uganda is a country with one of the highest rates of HIV in the world,” says Fr. Mark. “More than one million children under the age of 17 have lost one or both parents because of it -- many of whom are infected themselves, and struggle to survive on the streets.”
At the Salesian center, boys aged 8-17 work toward becoming independent, productive adults through education, life skills training, and athletic and other enrichment activities. Those who are HIV-positive follow a supervised regimen including a special diet, medication to control the virus, and personalized counseling to help them cope with their status.
While both programs are in their infancy, their early successes promise to inspire additional programs specifically tailored to the needs of this vulnerable and marginalized population.
Our mission renews the hopes of youth orphaned and stigmatized by disease. What’s your mission?