The Record-Review – The official newspaper of Bedford and Pound Ridge, New York

 

May 13, 2011



Whitney Johnson with South African children helped by her nonprofit organization, Ubuntu Africa.

 

A heart’s ‘call to action’ in South Africa


By MARY LEGRAND

Bedford native Whitney Johnson may be 26, but in the past few years alone she has accomplished more than most others do in a lifetime. Her nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization, Ubuntu Africa, provides comprehensive health care to HIV-positive children in the township of Khayelitsha, South Africa, near Cape Town, where Ms. Johnson lives.

“This work is a calling for me,” Ms. Johnson emailed last week from Africa. “Even though I understood the overwhelming scale of the HIV epidemic in South Africa and how many children were suffering because of it, I felt certain that improvement was both necessary and achievable. I had to follow and trust my heart’s call to action.”

Ms. Johnson is back in Bedford this weekend for “An Evening With Vanessa Williams Celebrating the Children of Ubuntu Africa,” a fundraiser taking place tomorrow, Saturday, May 14, at the Harvey School Arts Center in Katonah.

Ms. Williams, who has visited Ubuntu’s facilities in South Africa, does not plan to perform but will speak about the nonprofit’s mission and its need for support, as will Ms. Johnson. Cocktails and hors d’oeuvres will be offered, as will an auction to further benefit the cause.

“I am incredibly grateful that there is so much support for Ubuntu Africa from people in Bedford and Westchester,” Ms. Johnson wrote. “People from this community have put a lot of love, resources and time toward furthering Ubuntu Africa’s mission. Most of the funding to launch Ubuntu Africa’s center in Khayelitsha came from generous financial support from people in Westchester. I am especially moved by how many young people from the community have mobilized to support the children of Ubuntu Africa. Many young people, including students from the Harvery School, Rippowam Cisqua School, and the Masters School, have raised awareness and funds for Ubuntu Africa.”

A graduate of Colorado College, Ms. Johnson studied in Cape Town during college and while there, saw a need for loving care of the children disenfranchised because they are HIV positive. Working with northern Westchester residents such as Bedfordite Doni Belau, she founded Ubuntu in 2007. Ms. Belau serves as president of Ubuntu’s board of directors.

Ubuntu Africa’s HIV care program currently provides health care, counseling, social work, HIV and ARV compliance education, nutrition and confidence-boosting activities for nearly 200 children. “After enrolling in our program, we see such a dramatic improvement in the physical health and psychological well-being of the children we serve,” Ms. Johnson said. “I know the love and care they receive at our center are working.” She credits Ms. Williams for helping get the word out in northern Westchester at tomorrow’s event.

Clearly the admiration is mutual. “Whitney’s commitment to bettering the lives of South African children stricken with AIDS is extraordinarily admirable for a young woman,” Ms. Williams said in a press release, recounting her visit to Ubuntu’s headquarters in South Africa with daughter Jillian. “I was immediately caught up with her passion for change and purpose on our first meeting in Cape Town. Whitney guided us through a township and happily introduced us to some of the recipients of health care Ubuntu provided, and it was apparent that she is a rock star in that village. I applaud her continuing efforts in a magnificent country with a daunting epidemic.”

Indeed, the numbers support Ms. Williams’s use of the words “daunting epidemic.” There are more than 330,000 children under the age of 15 living with HIV in South Africa, and many are not accessing life-saving treatment or receiving the care that they need to survive. HIV is the leading cause of death in children under the age of 5 in South Africa. There are 1.9 million AIDS orphans in South Africa alone. Further complicating the situation for children living with HIV and AIDS are the stigma and discrimination that often accompany the epidemic.

When asked how one person can make a difference in the world, even against overwhelming odds, Ms. Johnson emailed that she believes every human being can help solve big challenges faced in the world today. “Our actions have momentum and a bearing on the world. Contributing positively to the world does not mean doing something grandiose. Any small deed or act of kindness that lifts another being makes a difference.”

South Salem resident Beth Golde, a Realtor in Bedford, was so impressed with Ms. Johnson’s mission that she traveled to South Africa in January to see for herself on what she calls a “volunteer vacation.” Ms. Golde now provides pro bono publicity for Ubuntu Africa.

“I met Whitney just after she graduated from college; she was back in Bedford and was raising money to start this center,” Ms. Golde said. “She was so passionate, so focused on her mission that she could not walk away from these children, whom she knew needed their medications, nursing care, proper nutrition. If they were lucky they had one parent alive. Most were orphaned, but if given guidance and love they could live normal lives.”

The center’s children range in age from 3 or 4 to about 18, Ms. Golde said. They attend mandatory school during the day and come to Ubuntu Africa in the afternoon for healthful meals, counseling, health care services and more.

Currently doing an internship with Ms. Johnson is 22-year-old Mallory Sheff of Chappaqua. “These are both smart, capable, completely devoted young women,” Ms. Golde said.

Ubuntu Africa’s website, www.ubafrica.org, describes Khayelitsha, the second largest township in South Africa, as home to an estimated 1 million people. In addition to having high rates of HIV, the community faces high levels of poverty, unemployment and crime. Many HIV positive people lack easy access to clinics, nutritious food, antiretroviral drugs and indoor plumbing, making illnesses such as HIV and AIDS difficult to manage. Ubuntu Africa is unique in its mission to care for youngsters who live with HIV.

“‘Ubuntu’ is an African philosophy based on the connection of all human beings and helping one another,” Ms. Johnson wrote. “The giving and helpful spirit of Bedford and Westchester residents has translated into the creation of a place of love and healing for HIV-positive children thousands of miles away — that is what Ubuntu is all about! Without the support of people in Bedford and northern Westchester, Ubuntu Africa would not exist.”

Tomorrow’s event takes place at 7:30 p.m. at the Harvey School and is open to the public. Tickets will be available at the door for $200 each. VIP tickets are $300 and include a 7 p.m. meet-and-great with Ms. Williams. Those interested in learning more about the event or how to support Ubuntu Africa may call Ms. Golde at 707-1567 or visit www.ubafrica.org.

“We will be showing a short movie and several photos depicting our program in South Africa,” Ms. Johnson wrote. “Vanessa will be speaking about her experience visiting Khayelitsha and meeting the children and families that Ubuntu Africa works with, and will also kick-start the live auction! There will be great food, music and lots of dancing at the event as well. It is going be a very fun and meaningful evening.”


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