AIDS 2016 Durban: A tour at the front lines of philanthropy

After having lived in South Africa in 2015 and studied the continent’s development, it was with great anticipation that I returned there to not only attend my first international AIDS conference, but also take a deep dive into my new field of HIV/AIDS philanthropy. And while many AIDS2016 panelists and film screenings related important aspects of the work underway at grantee sites, nothing compared to the engagement tours that offered a first-hand visit with organizations directly benefitting from HIV/AIDS philanthropy. One of these tours, to the Blue Roof Wellness Centre, showcased an organization at the front lines of the local HIV epidemic. Located in the heavily industrialized section of the South Durban Basin, this tour promised a unique opportunity to engage a beneficiary of funding from two FCAA members: Keep a Child Alive (KCA) and the Stephen Lewis Foundation. After reflecting back on the experience, I was unprepared for the incredible achievements in HIV care and public health underway inside the walls of what was an otherwise unremarkable and simple structure tucked away in South Durban.

Greeted with the typical warmth of South African hospitality, our conversation quickly turned somber as our tour guide, and the center’s chief nurse and administrator, described the clinic’s founding over ten years ago. It was at the height of the country’s HIV/AIDS denialism, when the local population maintained a 41% HIV rate. In the beginning, staff could only test patients for HIV/AIDS and send them off for home-based care, but the nurse-managed clinic subsequently gained the ability to diagnose, dispense government-subsidized ARV medications, and provide social services on site. Those under 16, grandmothers, and the unemployed are offered free care, while employed patients must show pay slips to assess their fees according to a sliding scale. After discussing resource and funding limitations, it was clear that the clinic has a long road ahead in overcoming the challenges from the estimated 300,000 deaths in South Africa from the AIDS epidemic, which left behind throngs of orphaned children across the country.

One of the center’s main goals is to use its funding to combat stigma, particularly among the local youth. Operating largely with funding from KCA for its treatment, counseling, and classroom programs, Blue Roof also uses funding from the Stephen Lewis Foundation to serve about 100 meals a day to their clients and local children. The center prides itself on providing a space for children and adolescents to express themselves creatively and engage one other while learning about HIV and its transmission. Our tour guide estimated that only 25% of the center’s 2,500 patients come from the surrounding community. Most patients traverse great distances to find Blue Roof in an effort to avoid being seen entering an HIV clinic in their own community. With school teachers reluctant to broach the topic of HIV and many infected “blessers” preying on young girls, the center plays an important role in destigmatizing the disease and providing essential public health education for children and adolescents.

As the only clinical site supported by funds from KAC, Blue Roof staff appreciated the close and collaborative relationship with the foundation. Yearly visits and regular skype calls allow the center’s funders to track their progress in caring for children, orphans, grandmothers, as well as women and their male partners. In addition to a partnership with Zoe-life to open a child and adolescent-focused wellness center in one of the adjacent buildings, Blue Roof is planning to establish a career center and arts program where 6-12-year-olds can learn social skills and vocal expression.

As the tour concluded, our group lamented having to leave so soon, commenting on how we could have spent the whole day at Blue Roof. In the end, we left the center amazed by their efforts, inspired by their vision, and grateful for philanthropy’s role in supporting organizations facing the brunt of the HIV epidemic in the out of the way places like the South Durban Basin.

About The Blue Roof Wellness Centre: The center was designed and built by Keep a Child Alive (KCA), an organization founded in 2003 by AIDS activist Leigh Blake and 15-time Grammy Award-winner Alicia Keys, as an emergency push to get life-saving HIV medication to children needlessly dying of AIDS in Africa. The center currently provides comprehensive HIV services to 2,319 adults, adolescents, and children living with HIV. It offers a variety of services, including: HIV counselling and testing (HCT), HIV care and antiretroviral therapy (ART), psychosocial and adherence support (including specialized psychosocial support for children and their caregivers, as well as a youth support group), nutritional support such as hot, nutritious meals, tuberculosis (TB) screening, cervical cancer screening, and linkages to substance abuse counselling.