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A Warm Embrace for The Adolescents Living With HIV

Nicola Willis

This week I had the pleasure of interviewing Nicola Willis, founder of AFRICAID. This organisation has a special place in my heart because they offered me my very first speaking gig. I will always cherish that opportunity, motivating a bunch of energetic adolescent boys. Nicola and her team have done an outstanding job in Zimbabwe. Discover who they are and what they do in this highly inspiring interview.

Download the PDF for this interview HERE.

When was Africaid founded?

Africaid was founded in 2004. It was then registered as a local Private Voluntary Organisation (09/2007) in 2007. What led to your decision to start the organization? Africaid was founded at a time when antiretroviral drugs were beginning to be available for children with HIV. So there was increasing focus on rolling out ARV programmes for children but there was very little focus on their psychosocial needs. How were they coping with their HIV status? Did they have information about their condition, what is involved in their care, what can they expect for their future? Do they have the skills and confidence to cope with their status and to live happy, healthy, fulfilled lives? We knew ARV drugs were just one part of the care they urgently needed.

I was working as a paediatric HIV nurse at Newlands Clinic at the time, helping them to establish the paediatric treatment programme there. So when one of the adolescent patients there, Simbisai, asked if me if I could help her set up a support group where children and adolescents with HIV could come together, I was thrilled to assist.

So a small group of enthusiastic volunteers (nurses, Doctors, counselors) came together to start the first support groups in 2004. The first was named “Zvandiri”, a name chosen by one of the founder members, Amanda. She wanted to say, I may be HIV positive, but “accept me as I am”. She also designed the logo which is a rock with a door in to the rock and the sun shining behind. The rock symbolizes their hearts which had hardened after all their experiences, but the door represents the support they were now getting, with the light ahead in their lives. This remains the name and logo for the programme today, 8 years on.

This one support group became two and then in response to the huge demand of children who learned about the support groups, grew in to a network of community support groups across Harare and Chitungwiza. Led from the beginning by the most wonderful, dedicated team of skilled volunteers, the support groups have met on the first Saturday of the month, every month, for the past 8 years.

Over the years, the Zvandiri model has grown into a network of community-based treatment, care, prevention and support services for HIV positive children and adolescents. These services are integrated within the clinical care provided by government and private clinics. This integration creates a robust continuum of care for children and young people with HIV and their families and aims to promote both their health and psychosocial outcomes.

Who plays the leading role in this important work?

Zvandiri is led by HIV positive adolescents whom are trained and mentored as service providers. Through community support groups, community outreach and clinic-based Zvandiri Centres, HIV positive adolescents identify children for HIV testing, link children living with HIV to treatment and care, provide sustained counselling for children, adolescents and their families, provide adherence monitoring and support in clinics and homes, trace treatment defaulters and provide life skills training for their peers which promotes resilience and confidence. Zvandiri’s SRH programme ensures young people living with HIV have the knowledge, skills and confidence to make informed prevention decisions and are linked to care including STI, family planning services, PMTCT and Zvandiri’s young parents support groups. HIV positive adolescents also provide training and counselling for caregivers and training of health workers, teachers, social welfare officers, church leaders and community members.

What is the vision?

Our vision is that HIV positive children, adolescents and young people have the knowledge, skills and confidence to cope with their HIV status and to live happy, healthy, fulfilled lives. Our dream is that the Zvandiri model and its peer-led approach is integrated within health services across the country.

How many young people do we have in the programme?

There are currently 1364 children, adolescents and young people 5-24 years in the programme in Harare. But we are also scaling up the Zvandiri model under the Government of Zimbabwe’s National Action Plan for OVC. Through partnerships with City Health Departments and other Community based organisations, an additional 11,000 have been engaged in adolescent-led training and advocacy activities. A team of 60 trained and mentored HIV positive adolescents are providing daily counselling for their peers on ART.

Download the PDF for this interview HERE.

Do you feel that you are making a significant contribution to their lives?

I certainly hope so and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that we are achieving our vision for many children and young people, not just in Harare but also in other provinces. When children join the Zvandiri programme or are reached through Zvandiri activities, they grow in confidence. They develop a new belief in themselves, that they are important, valued, loved and capable. Their perspective of their life changes and they move from being withdrawn, lonely, isolated young people to confident, determined, joyful individuals. What more could we hope for? This then has a knock on effect on how they access treatment and care. They adhere better to their drugs and are more involved in their own care. They are more purposeful about their lives, which helps them to be more positive about their own education. They develop peer structures and their life skills improve. One particular case to illustrate this is Rudo, who joined us as a 12 year old girl. She was an orphan and had just been told her HIV status. She was withdrawn and shy, saying little. Yet with close support and mentoring over the years, she has blossomed in to one of Africaid’s core team members, working as a Community Adolescent Treatment Supporter, facilitating her own support group, training government Doctors and nurses, and writing books and making films which have been seen globally. Last year she got married and last week she gave birth to her first child.

Which success story are you most proud of?

Am I allowed two?

Sure!

The first would be the way individual children have grown in to confident, healthy, happy young people. Watching them grow and thrive through engaging in different programme activities is a real joy; particularly the children who joined us 8 years ago. They were extremely sick but with treatment from their clinic and getting involved at Africaid, they are now pursing their adult lives, including families of their own. We have always believed that HIV positive young people, with the right training and mentorship, can provide first class health and psychosocial support services for their peers and they are demonstrating this is possible. The second success is the way that one small support group that used to meet in my garden has grown and evolved over the years to become a model recognised by the World Health Organisation in its new guidelines for Adolescents living with HIV.

That’s awesome!

Central to this success has been the way Zvandiri is nested within the government structures. With the support from the Government of Zimbabwe, we have really been able to support the nation’s response to treatment, care, support and prevention for children and young people with HIV.

What are the main challenges you face in attaining your objectives?

Our main challenge is the huge demand for services. We are approached regularly by community organisations and health facilities that like the model and would like it integrated within their own programmes but we do not have the resources to meet that demand. There are a great number of children out there who need this support and we need to find a way to continue to scale up the model across the country.

Is there anything that you feel if the rest of Zimbabwenas knew, it would make your job much easier?

Absolutely! They need to know how a child with HIV feels. If they knew that, they would think and behave differently towards children living with HIV. To find that out, they just need to take the time to ask! The way children feel is so often ignored because they are perceived as being too little, or we don’t know how to ask them, to listen or respond to them. We are so busy with our own lives. But ask them and listen. You will change their life very easily and very quickly.

How can the community and any other well-wisher best assist you with your work?

We are a reliant on donor funds so of course funding is always needed. But another extremely valuable contribution is skills. Young people in our programme are desperate to be engaged in any activity that exposes them to opportunities such as sports, arts, cultural activities, skills building, career guidance, business mentoring, etc. They all have talents and interests but these need nurturing. Yet all too often there is little opportunity for them to access that sort of support. There are a great number of people with skills they could share and this often costs nothing – just time and commitment. So skills sharing would be a tremendous contribution. I’m already thinking of some people that could assist in some of the areas you have mentioned there.

Last question: Are you fulfilled with your work?

How could I not be!? Every day, I am privileged to work with the most wonderful group of courageous, determined children and young people. They inspire me enormously to keep going in the work that we do and it is they who help us to understand what we need to do next. Both personally and professionally, I am growing all the time from my work with the children of Zvandiri. Of course, none of this would be possible without the incredible team I have the pleasure of working with, whom have managed to keep the heart and soul of Africaid, why it was established and the focus on our goal – the children. The team are not just Managers, Programme Officers, Nurses, counsellors or social workers but true mentors for the children in the programme, nurturing them as they grow and encounter new challenges in their lives.

Visit Zvandiri on their website: www.africaid-zvandiri.org  

For further information, assistance, or involvement, email Nicola on Nicola@zvandiri.org  

Download the PDF for this interview HERE.

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May 13, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The New Superman – Confessions of a Winner

I am the new Superman.

There’s no obstacle too great for me.

Though the enemy comes at me in one direction,

He will flee in seven directions.

He may have come like a flood,

But the LORD has risen up a standard against him.

No weapon fashioned against me prospers.

I am the new Superman.

I may be down, but I’m not out.

I refuse to be perplexed.

The Greater One is at work in me.

I have a vision,

I will see it through in the name of Jesus!

I’m never forsaken; the Almighty is by my side.

I KNOW WHO I AM!

Great are the afflictions of the righteous,

But the Lord delivers him from them all!

I’m standing tall with confidence,

I boast in the Lord, because he is my fortress.

A thousand may fall on my side,

And ten thousand on my right,

BUT it will not come near me!

I refuse to regard the problem,

My focus is on Christ, the author and finisher of my faith.

All things are working together for my good.

Even this situation is working for my good!

I am the new Superman,

The new creation,

Seated with Christ in heavenly places,

Blessed with every spiritual blessing in heavenly places.

I can never lose.

I’m a winner! Glory to God, I’m a winner.

This is my confession.

I KNOW WHO I AM!

August 6, 2012 Posted by | Motivation | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment