JOHANNESBURG — By most standards, four-year-old John would be considered a tragic example of the wrath of AIDS in Africa. His mother died of the disease shortly after he was born. He is diagnosed with HIV, and doctors say he won't reach his 10th birthday.
And yet that hasn't stopped Bob and Jenny Smith from stepping forward to adopt him and love him as their own.
"We want to give him all we can - to see him experience everything he can, no matter how short his life may be," says Mr. Smith, the adoptive father, as his son zips around the living room on a plastic tricycle, wearing a baseball cap and oversized green sunglasses.
To protect their son, the Smiths ask that the family's real name not be used. The adoptive couple - a warehouse manager and a medical-insurance representative - are the first to adopt a child from the Cotlands Babies Sanctuary in Johannesburg. But hopefully not the last.
The need for such courageous couples is acute. Globally, an estimated 1.2 million children under 15 currently have HIV or full-blown AIDS - with 570,00 new cases in 1999 alone. Most of them infected by their mothers.
Mothers taken by AIDS have left behind 6.2 million children, many of them healthy but struggling without parents. And a staggering 95 percent of the world's AIDS orphans live in Africa.
"We can never build enough beds for the millions of children who are going to need care," says Jackie Schoeman, a director at the Cotlands sanctuary. In South Africa, experts say the disease will leave up to 3 million children either infected or orphaned over the next decade. Some countries have housed these children in centers that house 300 kids at a time.
The care may be adequate, says Ms. Schoeman. "But they need the love of a family."
The country's National AIDS Coalition recently warned that many orphaned teens will either leave school to work or drift onto the streets - begging for food, working as prostitutes, or turning to crime for survival.
Increasingly, adolescents are forced to assume the role of parents. This trend toward child-headed households was highlighted in Johannesburg early this month when one support group appealed for donations to assist 10-year-old Daniel Lekgowe, who cares for his bed-ridden mother and two young sisters in Alexandra township. He cooks and cleans and is often so tired that he falls asleep at school.
Cotlands helps by taking in up to 60 young children, ranging from tots with AIDS to healthy children who have lost their parents or have been abandoned by mothers too poor or too sick to care for them.
The center is training local volunteers to search for people willing to nurture the children in a home environment. Healthy orphans are readily accepted by foster parents - "everyone from semiliterate domestic workers to professionals," Schoeman says.But finding parents for children who are ill is a challenge.
The center also is pressing for the establishment of community-based homes, where up to five children could live with one or two trained foster parents who get outside financial support. That alternative would at least ensure that the kids experience some semblance of family life.
But the ideal solution, Schoeman says, is to find people like Bob and Jenny Smith. They first heard Cotlands' appeal for volunteers on the radio and decided to visit the center.
"Toddlers come out of nowhere, all waiting to be lifted and cuddled," says Smith, who was startled by the raw need for love. "They just crave for human touch."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society