The youths, mostly aged 6 through 14, are participants in the International Pen Pal program run by the Queens, N.Y.-based China AIDS Fund (CAF). The
program fosters friendships between HIV/AIDS affected children in Henan and American youths.
Henan, in the east central part of China, became the epicenter of that country’s HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1990s, when villagers gave blood for money. The Chinese government’s improper donation practices led to widespread infection.
Today an estimated 4 million people live with the virus in China. CAF is dedicated to combating the spread of the disease.
“These are kids who have lost their parents, who live with their grandparents. They don’t have a lot of moral support or mental support,” Dr. Vincent Wang, president of the pen pal program, says. “The American kids write to them like friends, like pals. The pen pal program helps them thrive.”
The program started in 2003. At first it paired children in Henan with Beijing University students. CAF has since broadened the program to include children from the United States. Today many of those university students help translate the letters and emails between American youths and their Chinese peers.
Any student can participate in the pen pal program, Dr. Wang says.
“We are trying to get more involvement from all kids on the American side,” Wang says. “We want to raise public awareness in the United States of this situation.”
The children in Henan attend one of two CAF-supported children's centers. The first opened in 2009, the second opened this past summer. The centers’ libraries, and computer and activity rooms, serve 700 children.
“They are just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many more who need help,” Wang says.
Challenges beset the Henan youths from infancy. Some lost parents to AIDS, some contracted HIV from their mothers at birth. Most live with grandparents or distant relatives. Many are discriminated against because of their extreme poverty and because their home villages are uneducated regarding the virus, says Shari Cai, a former CAF board member.
Because Henan is rural many children drop out of school quite young. There are a lot of illiterate children. Most started working when they were as young as 12.
Each year the Pen Pal program takes between 20 and 30 American students to visit the children in Henan. The trip provides a cultural shock, says Ms. Cai, who has traveled to Henan.
“The kids see how everyday living is a struggle,” Cai says. “It changes the way they think of the world. They basically treasure what they have much more than before, and they realize everything they do has a social impact.”
With its strong emphasis on education, CAF and the Pen Pal program help the children see life can be different. It promotes self-determination and education, Cai says. Last year CAF awarded five university scholarships.
“Knowing that someone is there for them means so much,” Cai says of the children she’s visited. “They save these letters and put them under their pillows."
• For more, visit http://www.chinaaidsfund.org.