Every so often, one learns of a really unique and worthy effort that helps address problems that are unimaginable in Fairfax County. Orphanages full of HIV-positive children whose parents succumbed to AIDS, some who have severe hearing problems because of perforated eardrums or viral infections.
Incredible poverty, cultural challenges, and thousands of miles to travel – add to the difficulty in seeking solutions.
Fairfax County residents Tomi and Jeff Browne are making a difference in the lives of hundreds of children in Kenya, through the HEARt of the Village Foundation, which Tomi founded, and Nyumbani, which has three programs: the Nyumbani Children’s Home in Nairobi, the Lea Toto medical outreach program in the slums of Nairobi, and the Nyumbani Village in Kitui, Kenya. Jeff and Tomi are former Mason District residents, now living in McLean. Tomi is an audiologist who maintained a practice here for many years. One of her former patients, Reverend Angelo D’Agostino, a Jesuit priest, founded the Nyumbani Children’s Home, Kenya’s first orphanage for HIV-positive children. He persuaded Tomi and her family to visit him in Kenya a few years before he died.
What Jeff and Tomi found astounded them. Nyumbani Children’s Home currently houses 107 children, from infant to age 22. Originally set up as a hospice, the facility quickly became a home as life expectancy increased once regular health care and anti-retroviral medications became available through USAID. The community outreach effort, Lea Toto, currently cares for nearly 4,000 HIV-positive children and their families, a number that will jump to 6,000 next year. Jeff noted that, in comparison, the entire United States has 3,500 children who are HIV-positive. The Nyumbani Village concept pairs children whose parents died of AIDS with grandparents whose children died of AIDS to live in a family atmosphere and maintain cultural traditions. In a country where an entire generation has been killed by AIDS, Nyumbani is rebuilding the structure of society, helping its residents become self-sufficient through education. Remote learning is a hallmark of the effort. With the time difference, teachers here in this area could teach classes via computer in the evening, and their students would be learning in the morning in Kenya. Those opportunities can be arranged… .
Tomi especially was intrigued by young Mungai, who lost his hearing at age nine because of infection. Mungai was a candidate for a cochlear implant, also called a “bionic ear,” which provides a means for the profoundly deaf to hear. Tomi’s expertise as an audiologist prompted her to arrange for Mungai to come to the U.S. for the implant, and for follow-up services. A cochlear implant must be adjusted periodically to ensure it is operating properly. From her experience with Mungai and the Nyumbani Children’s Home, Tomi realized just how much she wanted to continue this work. She started a foundation to provide hearing care to Kenyan children. She takes audiology students from James Madison University on trips to Kenya, and said they see more middle ear pathology in their two-week visits than they would see in a lifetime here at home.
I asked Jeff and Tomi what they need most. Funding and volunteers are high on their list. Significant corporate support is sought, and volunteers with certain specialties such as teachers and construction workers, but any help is appreciated. A machine to help test drug resistance levels exists, but it is expensive. It saves time, though, since getting immediate results on site is preferable to taking weeks to get test results back. A video otoscope would create a “Fantastic Voyage” opportunity for telemedicine, enabling skilled medical personnel to consult from their home practices. KLM and British Airways fly to Nairobi; donated airline tickets would help defray costs of the periodic trips to treat the children. A special opportunity exists for a jewelry-making volunteer. Tomi has thousands of Kenyan beads for necklaces and bracelets that can be sold to benefit HEARt of the Village. She was wearing a necklace that she created, deep red and shiny silver black beads in a very modern design. Is there a jewelry-making party in your future?
We all know the holidays bring a lot of appeals for help. If you, or your business, are looking for a new challenge, or a new outlet for philanthropy, large or small, log on to www.heartofthevillage.org, or www.nyumbani.org. Both are 501(c) (3) certified, and very deserving of help, now or any time of the year.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be e-mailed at [email protected]