Stephen Lewis dares Canadians to support grassroots AIDS projects in Africa

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The Canadian Press
Aug 31, 2009
By Amy Fuller

TORONTO — You can lace up your running shoes, but you can also host a dinner party, yodel on the subway or carry a canoe through city streets to raise money to fight AIDS.

Whatever you choose, preposterous or not, it’s a dare.

That’s the message being sent to Canadians by a new fundraising initiative from an AIDS group started by Canada’s former United Nations ambassador Stephen Lewis, now a professor of global health at Hamilton’s McMaster University and co-director of AIDS-Free World.

The Stephen Lewis Foundation, which supports hundreds of community-based organizations sustaining people affected by HIV/AIDS in 15 African countries, launched the Dare to Remember campaign Monday.400x400_standard

As recessionary cutbacks and fears about the economy threaten funding to Sub-Saharan communities hard hit by the virus, the campaign asks people to get beyond their comfort zones and do something personally meaningful to raise money.

Participants can set a fundraising goal and spread the word about what they plan to accomplish by creating a personal web page at www.adaretoremember.org.

The dares will be enacted during the week of Oct. 17, in celebration of the courage Africans touched by HIV/AIDS show daily.

Designers Chris Tyrell and Jim Searle of Hoax Couture have already signed up, as has k-os: the hip-hop artist plans to work a shift in the toy section of the major department store where he had his first job. Other celebrities will announce their dares over the coming weeks.

The foundation offers categories to get people thinking; among them, Dare to Be Bold, Dare to Be Funny and Dare to Be Healthy. People can collect pledges for completing a triathlon, wearing their clothes backward or going vegetarian.

Lewis has already received numerous ideas for his own dare, such as singing the national anthem at a Toronto Blue Jays game or conducting the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. He hasn’t yet made a choice, but one suggestion is out: that he stop biting his nails.

“Not a chance. That’s a psychosis. That’s not solveable,” he said with a laugh during an interview Sunday.
Turning serious, Lewis said there’s no question the amount of money available to fight the crisis has diminished over the last year. He called the situation “ominous, tremendously worrisome.”

While support for Lewis’s foundation has remained stable in the midst of the economic downturn, large amounts of money tend to be made available for grand projects rather than the small, grassroots efforts that make profound changes in peoples’ lives, he said.

Money toward the purchase of drugs, lab equipment, the quest for vaccines and public education activities are all vital, Lewis concedes, but community-based projects lack the degree of support they need.

“This is where the virus is being most effectively confronted,” he said.

That’s why the foundation changed its tagline this year, from “Easing the Pain of HIV/AIDS in Africa” to “Turning the Tide of HIV/AIDS in Africa,” and set a fundraising target of $100 million over the next five years. With that kind of money, Lewis is confident the impact of the virus could gradually diminish. The foundation could go from supporting some 200,000 orphans to supplying food, shelter, school fees, grief counselling, psychosocial support and other necessities to a million orphans.

“We actually think that it can be done,” he says.

This year’s Dare to Remember event could raise millions of dollars, Lewis hopes. Organizers don’t yet know how much to expect from the first campaign, but anticipate it will become an annual tradition.
At the G8 summit in Scotland in 2005, international leaders agreed to provide universal access to AIDS prevention and treatment for everyone who needed it by 2010. As that target approaches, only four million people receive treatment out of the eight or nine million people who need it, Lewis says.

“There’s a psychological factor involved as well. When the crisis is the greatest, that’s the moment to encourage people to contribute more,” he said.

Critics argue too much money goes toward AIDS as opposed to other health issues, but Lewis insists the pandemic is an exceptional issue that destroys whole generations and comparing AIDS to other global health needs is wrong.

Government stimulus packages in Europe, Asia and North America are verging on three trillion dollars, he says, while a few billion per year goes toward HIV/AIDS.

Lewis speaks as a recent witness to African troubles, having just returned from visiting community-based projects in South Africa, Uganda, Kenya and the Congo. There, he observed a respectful, close relationship between foundation staff and community workers that left him exhilarated, particularly given that people dealing with AIDS often feel stigmatized.

Yet he also saw the consequences of sexual violence after political unrest in Kenya and horrific wars in the Congo. In the act of raping, the virus is frequently transmitted, Lewis says. The foundation supports the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, a city in eastern Congo, where women who have been raped have their reproductive organs surgically repaired.

“There are aspects of the foundation’s work we didn’t anticipate but very much want to be a part of.”
Last year, the Stephen Lewis Foundation raised close to $12 million from some 50,000 donors.

Copyright © 2009 The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.

  • Frank Scurley

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    …..Frank Scurley

     
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