As president and CEO of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, I travel to Africa frequently. Every trip is unique and memorable in its own way, but the trip I look forward to the most each year is AIDS Walk Africa - the first Foundation fundraiser on African soil.
I'll never forget the last afternoon of AIDS Walk Africa 2007 in Tanzania. We were hot, dusty, and tired after several days of hiking the countryside visiting Foundation-supported programs, and the final day doing a community service project at a remote primary school in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro. We'd completed the service project, replacing floors and windows in several classrooms and building a new boys' bathroom. We thought it was time to rest under a big tree in front of the school, but suddenly the children were dismissed from their classrooms and flooded out to greet us.
Before we knew it, the 50 walk participants were swept into a mass of what appeared to be hundreds of singing, dancing, smiling children. The students grabbed our hands, danced in circles around us, and pulled us into a conga line to the beat of drums played by the oldest boys. They sang songs in Swahili -- some of us tried to sing along and others just threw up their arms and laughed. This celebration went on for close to an hour before we all gathered on the hillside for a group photo. After a tiring and emotionally-charged week, this joyful finale was exactly what we needed.
This year, AIDS Walk Africa is moving to a new country - Swaziland - and will be held from June 30 to July 5, 2008. I can't wait to explore this tiny kingdom (about the size of New Jersey), which has stunning wildlife parks, one of the last ruling monarchs, and sadly, one of the world's worst AIDS epidemics. About one-fifth of Swazis are living with HIV.
AIDS Walk Africa can be a life-changing experience for many reasons. For lots of participants, the walk is their first-ever visit to Africa, or perhaps even their first trip overseas. Walkers are able to see first-hand what the Foundation is doing to fight pediatric AIDS, both by visiting the clinics that we support and interacting with health staff and patients. They get to enjoy the jaw-dropping natural beauty of Africa and the incredible warmth and hospitality of its people. And of course, walkers develop lifelong friendships with one another during the trip. Walking through Africa for a week, while seeing and doing things you've never seen or done before, creates a special bond. By the end of the week, everyone feels like family. These relationships are what bring our walkers back year after year.
But perhaps best of all, the funds that walkers raise on AIDS Walk Africa are used to support the Foundation's programs to prevent, treat, and eradicate pediatric AIDS worldwide. What better reason to embark on the journey of a lifetime, than giving children the chance to live healthy lives?
Learn more about AIDS Walk Africa 2008 in Swaziland at www.pedaids.org/AWA2008.