Mama Katele, whose courage and commitment inspired the founding of FACE AIDS
Mama Katele, whose courage and commitment inspired the founding of FACE AID

Founded in 2005 by a committed group of Stanford University students, the non-profit organization FACE AIDS has now spread to more than 85 campuses across the country. By late September, the campaign had raised more than $250,000 towards its target of $1 million to fight AIDS in Africa by supporting the work of Partners In Health.

To accelerate its drive toward that goal, FACE AIDS has scheduled a number of major events through the autumn, including a Leadership Summit Conference in late October.

The Conference will gather more than 400 students from all across the country to talk about ways to combat AIDS and hear from PIH co-founder Jim Yong Kim, Henry Epino who serves as medical director for the PIH project in Rwanda, and other leaders in the fight against AIDS.

The following month, Paul Farmer will speak on the Stanford campus on behalf of FACE AIDS and Dance Marathon, which will pull together hundreds of students to dance around the clock to raise money for PIH.

The FACE AIDS campaign is raising money and awareness by soliciting challenge grants from corporations, foundations, and individuals to match student donations from fundraising campaigns on college campuses. 

Mwange, Zambia – Summer 2005

It all began in Zambia, on top of a porch and underneath the stars, in the summer of 2005. Katie Bollbach, Jonny Dorsey, and Lauren Young, three Stanford students on a six-week service trip to a Congolese refugee camp based in Mwange, discussed the devastating symptoms and stigma of HIV in Africa and their impact on development projects aimed at empowering women, reducing illiteracy and caring for orphans in the camp community.

They talked about the plight of Mama Katele, the sole openly HIV-positive refugee in a camp of 24,000 refugees, and about the seemingly insurmountable challenges faced by a country where HIV has infected one in every six adults and orphaned more than 710,000 children.

Jonny Dorsey, the co-founder and Executive Director of FACE AIDS, remembers those six weeks spent in Zambia as eye opening. "At Stanford, I was sort of on the public health track, and I had read lots of books about Africa and health issues. I thought I knew what I was talking about with AIDS and global health. Then I went to Zambia and realized I knew nothing."

African women sewing beaded AIDS badges sold by  FACE AIDS
African women sewing beaded AIDS badges sold by FACE AIDS

Sitting there on the porch, the three students began planning a small income-generating project for Mama Katele that they hoped would lessen the stigma surrounding HIV and also encourage more HIV testing for others in the camp. They would have her sew small beaded pins depicting a red ribbon on a white background – the international symbol of solidarity with people infected or affected by AIDS.

As the night wore on and their discussion evolved, they soon realized they could use this same strategy to help other people in the camp affected by HIV. Then, they decided, why stop there? Why not include two other refugee camps nearby and all the surrounding villages? By the time the sun came up, they had decided to postpone returning to school and work full-time to expand the operation to college campuses across the United States, selling $5 beaded AIDS awareness pins made by African AIDS support groups in exchange for student donations, matched by money from corporations. 

"It was that night when we decided we had to take time off from college and focus on work here in Africa," says Katie Bollbach, the co-founder and African Director for FACE AIDS.  "The situation was too urgent and the solution actually seemed practical." Sewing the pins and selling them to FACE AIDS would give HIV patients a way to earn a living without taxing their health. Selling the pins to students in the US would allow FACE AIDS to raise money and awareness to fight AIDS in Africa.

Soon after, the three students withdrew from school. Katie stayed in Africa for the following academic year to set up AIDS support groups and coordinate pin production while Jonny and Lauren returned to California to start organizing and fundraising.

Woodside, California – Summer 2006

Barely a year later, in the summer of 2006, the dining room of Jonny's mother's home had been converted into FACE AIDS world headquarters, staffed by six caffeine-fueled students almost 24 hours a day. A map on the wall was dotted with pins marking the location of dozens of schools in where students were readying FACE AIDS campaigns for the fall.

"The campaigns themselves are the instruments we use to fulfill our mission: ‘to mobilize and inspire students to fight AIDS in Africa'," explained Clay Sader, the Campaign Director at FACE AIDS. "And the great thing about them is that there's no set number or type of event that a campus can run." 

The campaigns, while different at every school, all involve three main initiatives: selling pins to raise student awareness and money, disseminating talking points, and mobilizing the student body. 

In the past, Clay said, events have ranged from basketball tournaments to brownbag lunches with professors. Even, Jonny added with a smile, to "quesadilla sales and drag shows."

The point, according to Jonny, is primarily to show people what is possible with a relatively small amount of money:  "Money is powerful, but lighting a fire under students is more powerful. A million dollars raised is a million conversations started."

Elizabeth Kersten, Director of Education at FACE AIDS, agreed.  She told about one of her friends, a math and physics major, whom she enticed to attend a FACE AIDS campaign event at Stanford with the promise of free food. 

"By the end of the speaker's talk," Elizabeth said, "my friend had tears in her eyes. But instead of feeling helpless after the event, she felt hopeful. Her $5 donation had just allowed an individual in Africa to extend his or her life, and she knew she could do more.

"She returned to the dorm and started researching careers in biomedical engineering. And she hadn't even touched the free food."

To find out more about FACE AIDS, visit www.faceaids.org

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