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GlobalPost's John Donnelly and a team of reporters investigate what experts are calling a 'turning point' in the global fight to reduce HIV infection rates. Successes in southern African countries have produced valuable lessons on effective approaches to fight AIDS, lessons that need to be learned in US cities where infection rates remain persistently high — particularly among African-Americans. Meanwhile a political confrontation looms in Washington over critical funding which could threaten gains already made.
A widow and a grieving mother half a world away fight a common foe.
She stopped showing up for work, and thought that she would be fired. Instead, Samela received more support from her mothers2mothers colleagues, who would come visit her more often than her own family. Many of her co-workers could relate to her loss.
Samela returned to work, mentoring mothers in Khayelitsha, but noticeably was not as committed as she had once been. “I had to make myself get up every morning and go even though I wanted to quit,” she said.
A few months later, a young mother came to Samela’s clinic; she had just lost her child. “She was crying and I don’t like to see people cry,” Samela said. She decided to share her own story with the patient. This moment reminded Samela what her work meant not only to herself but also to others. Within two years, she was promoted to communications associate in the central Cape Town office.
More from GlobalPost: A Daughter's Journey: Seeking answers on HIV/AIDS
“I don’t know what would have happened to me if there hadn’t been a mothers2mothers in that clinic in Khayelitsha,” she said, shaking her head.
Last year, Samela began dating again and said she knew that “it is time for me to be a mother again. Maybe my son would have wanted a little brother or sister.”
She became pregnant again. In the mothers2mothers support groups, she shared feelings of wanting her child to be normal and healthy. She has sorted out a perinatal treatment plan to lower the risk to almost zero that her child will not be born with HIV.
Samela’s baby girl is due at the end of October, which seems far away, but it is hard for Samela to contain her excitement.
“If I do say so, I am a good mother,” she said, flashing that smile once more.
Halfway across the world, Susan Rodriguez is making the same efforts as Samela — making connections in their own communities while finding a way to serve their own needs as HIV-positive women.
In 1995, Rodriguez was diagnosed with HIV, and shortly after she was widowed with three children, one of whom was also positive. Rodriguez contracted the disease from her late husband, who died from AIDS. She was shocked.
“I knew I needed to get information to live,” she said. She knew other women needed information, too.
Christina Rodriguez, 21, started the SMART Youth program in New York City. She was born HIV-positive and started the organization along with her mom's SMART University to offer HIV-positive youth mentorship from others born that way.
To meet these need, Rodriguez founded SMART University to serve women and youth infected with, or affected by, HIV. Rodriguez’s goal was to create a safe space for women and youth to receive the education they needed concerning health and prevention, while receiving support and empowerment from others like them.
While many of the employees at SMART have backgrounds in social work, some, like Rodriguez’s 21-year-old daughter who runs the SMART youth program, do not. And like mothers2mothers, SMART started because HIV-positive people needed services. The idea was that those who also were HIV-positive could help improve their health. They understood the needs of the patients.
The organization, Rodriguez said, addresses general issues that apply to women and their health as well as addressing the structural issues that the women may be facing in their community, such as barriers of access to healthy foods and education.
“SMART serves as a bridge between doctors, patients and experts.” Rodriguez said.
These programs are extremely important in poor neighborhoods, she said, which is why she feels that SMART serves a niche market in the underserved East Harlem community.
At meetings about healthy living, Rodriguez shows up to work early to cut fruit and put food out so that members can have a snack when they arrive. And after a cooking lesson, attendees take home leftovers and extra ingredients supplied by SMART, which serves as a food pantry on these occasions.
“We want people to practice what we preach, so we do the work and ask later where we are going to get the money to do it,” Rodriguez said. “We break down the information in a pragmatic way to give our women the tools they need to incorporate healthy choices into their lives.”
But the program has a huge challenge: funding. Unfortunately, according to Rodriguez, federal funding often overlooks grassroots programs like hers. This is bewildering to her, as she believes that people working for SMART and other community health programs often have the most impact on people’s lives.
“These women go through a transition and renew themselves, which leads to finding their own voices and becoming community advocates themselves,” Rodriguez said.
SMART University relies on public and private foundations for funding. In the tough economy, however, the money for the organization is dwindling and Rodriguez says that while supporting a frontline organization like hers is important, she is unsure how long their doors will be open.
But despite hard financial times, Rodriguez will not give up: “This is a very sensitive issue for women and one of us knows that we represent thousands of women. There is no quick fix.”