By SHERON C. PATTERSON
An estimated 5.6 million people were living with AIDS or HIV in 2009 in South Africa.
Almost 33% of women ages 25-29 and 25% of men ages 30-34 in the country had HIV.
A few of the beaders from the Hillcrest AIDS Centre Trust taught beading classes at the World Methodist Conference. I took their class because I wanted to learn how to bead like them – and to hear their stories firsthand. Ultimately, I found the skill of beading surprisingly difficult, but marveling at their testimonies was a joy.
“Why make the beads?” I asked one of the women.
“When we got sick, they gave us a job to do,” she said. “It was to give us better health and to teach us how to make the beads. We earned money to buy clothes, healthy food, and take our children to school. The HACT is like my father and my mother because they do so much to help me. Now I can help myself. My daughter is learning to bead, too. Soon she will earn more than I do.”
Then I wanted to actually see this place where hope and empowerment come from beads, so I caught a cab to HACT. Julie Hornby, CEO since 1996, greeted me with a smile and gave me a tour I will never forget.
Our first stop: The Wall of Remembrance, a 5-foot-tall wall of bricks that spans 20 yards and is painted with names of the 20-30 patients who die here every month.
“They die young,” she said. “The average age is 20.”
We climbed the steps onto the back porch of the 24-bed Respite Center, which offers around-the-clock nursing. A group of six women sunned themselves on the porch. I greeted them all, and most of them returned the greeting. A few appeared weak, unable to lift their heads or open their mouths.
“We love those [whom] you are not comfortable liking,” Ms. Hornby said. “They come here to die. They have no money and nowhere else to go. We serve the poorest of the poor. Even though they come here dying, 50 percent leave healthy due to the tender love and care we give them.”
The Hillcrest Centre does not provide antiviral medications, which come from the government. However, all the services here are free.
“Let me take you to the chapel next,” Ms. Hornby said. I followed, expecting a room with pews, an altar and stained-glass windows. The stained-glass windows were there, but the room was the size of a walk- in closet. It was only large enough to hold two gurneys.
“The chapel is for those who have just died,” she explained. “It gives them dignity to wait here for the hearse in this quiet, beautiful space. Shining on them are four images from the stained glass -- of the beadwork, the cross, the AIDS red ribbon and the father of our nation, Nelson Mandela.”