The first time I ever visited the Umkhanyakude district in South Africa was to celebrate the launch of the initial Mpilonhle mobile health unit, which my charity -- the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project -- helped to fund. Mpilonhle is an organization that provides innovative health and education programs to this rural district's schools and communities. Run by Dr. Michael Bennish, Mpilonhle uses mobile health units to treat individuals' medical, psychological, and sociological needs. This care would not otherwise be available in these areas due to the extreme level of poverty.
During this first trip, Dr. Bennish educated me on the challenges individuals face in the Umkhanyakude district. The statistics blew me away. For example, youth growing up in this region have a 50% chance of contracting HIV in their lifetime. 50%! How could that be? With all of the resources today, I found it heartbreaking that people in this country, in my home country, continue to face infection rates like this. Upon learning these facts, there was no question in my mind that my Africa Outreach Project was in the right place to lend our support, and we continue to work with Mpilonhle and their mobile health units.
The Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project develops awareness, generates supporting funds, and participates in the enhancement of Mpilonhle's medical units and mobile computer labs. The beauty of the units is that they bring resources to communities that have no means of transportation and are miles away from health services. Mpilonhle's computer labs provide basic computer literacy to students and community members. Through the work CTAOP and Mpilonhle are doing together, many local individuals, especially children, are seeing doctors and experiencing technology for the very first time.
Over the last two-and-a-half years, I have seen Mpilonhle grow -- adding two additional mobile health units and now serving over 10,000 students and 20,000 community members.
Every time I return to South Africa, I can see and feel the difference in the students we serve. This past December, I went back down to visit the students and their villages in the Umkhanyakude district. Traveling with the mobile health units, I went from school to school expressing our support and experiencing what the organization has begun to do for communities. Meeting with local leaders, we worked together to develop new ways to better serve the population in the district.
I was also fortunate enough to sit in on a sexual education class led by an Mpilonhle staff member. Rather than shying away from the topic of sex education, the students in the class were so engaged and honest. I was in awe at the fact that these teens volunteered to demonstrate the correct use of prophylactics using prosthetics. There was a comfort between the youth and the session leaders that showed a desire to protect themselves from the spread of disease. They were willing to push their personal discomfort aside and engage in an education that would inevitably save their lives.
After my visit, Dr. Bennish told me that 75% of the students at the schools want to be tested for HIV, which is an incredibly high number. Students at these schools want to know their status, and they feel safe enough with the Mpilonhle staff to be tested. It's an incredible success and a testament to the impact of the mobile units.
I am excited for the continued service we are providing to the residents of South Africa. Sometimes it seems like change cannot happen, but if you can commit yourself to a cause and to the people, change is absolutely possible.