Carolyn Twietmeyer, a suburban mother of 13 children – including six from Africa – has a message she wants to say on World AIDS Day: adopt HIV-positive kids.
The Twietmeyers of the Chicago suburb Joliet have adopted two sets of three siblings from Ethiopia, each set having an HIV-positive child. Unlike popular public opinion, Twietmeyer says children with HIV and AIDS can have normal and healthy lives with anti-retroviral drugs and do not pose a danger in transmitting the virus to other family members.
HIV cannot be transmitted in a normal family, school, or church environment, she explains. The virus can only be transmitted in a few ways: intravenous drug use, sexual contact, through birth and breast feeding. Although she did not mention it, HIV can also be transmitted through blood transfusion. It is not transmitted, she emphasizes, through hugs and kisses, sharing drinks, or even if siblings share baths.
"As Christians, we kind of struck gold [with adoption] in that it is literally touching the heart of God and living out the Gospel we believe in. I believe our whole Gospel is based on adoption," said Twietmeyer to The Christian Post. Twietmeyer is the founder of Project HOPEFUL, a group of mothers that seeks to bring awareness to and advocate for adopting children living with HIV.
"Once you bring one [child] home and you experience that depth of relationship and closeness with someone you didn't give birth [to] then you realize the love of God is stronger than that," she said. "It just ties in our whole faith on a level that I don't think anything else has."
There are over 2.3 million children that are living with HIV infection, according to the latest UNAIDS global report. The total number of newly infected children has decreased to an estimated 370,000 in 2009, down 24 percent from five years earlier, as more women have access to services preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV.
Also fewer children under the age of 15 are dying from AIDS-related illness. An estimated 260,000 children died from the disease in 2009, 19 percent lower than in 2004.
Among the 163 million orphans in the world, some 15 million children have been orphaned because of AIDS.
In terms of expenses for an HIV-positive adoption, the cost of international adoption for an HIV-positive child is the same as one without the disease. And when it comes to medical costs, good health insurance will cover most of the expenses except for a small deductible each month, Twietmeyer says.
But perhaps the hardest thing for many parents of HIV-positive children to deal with is not the adoption process or the financial expenses but the stigma associated with the disease. Twietmeyer says most of the calls to her organization have been from parents of HIV-positive children who ask for help dealing with discrimination against their child in church.
Many times when church staff find out that the child is living with HIV, they do not want the child in the nursery with the other children. The Project HOPEFUL founder recommends that families educate the church pastor and staff about HIV transmission and, if that does not work, to make a "graceful exit" from the church.
"The U.S. is quite undereducated where HIV is concern. The Kaiser Family Foundation study shows that the U.S. hasn't been educated past the year 1987 with regards to HIV," she lamented.
Twietmeyer added, "It's most heartbreaking to me to watch these parents go through what they have to get their children, often times nursing their children back to health, and have to deal with this kind of thing in the church and be outcasted within their church community."
Her church, however, has been very supportive of her HIV-positive children, she noted.
One Southern California megachurch has been making a big impact on changing how the global church thinks about HIV and AIDS. Pastor Rick Warren and his wife, Kay, of Saddleback Church are trying to eradicate the stigma associated with HIV and AIDS within the church. They are spearheading efforts within the global church, including an annual international summit on HIV held at their church, to get Christians more involved in caring for HIV-positive people and to remove stigma.
For World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, the Warrens will hold an all-day event to raise awareness about the disease and present opportunities to serve and pray for those infected or affected by HIV/AIDS.
Twietmeyer, whose story is featured in the Dec. 6 issue of People magazine and on the Nov. 30 segment of CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, says her families' self-sacrificing effort is more than about AIDS and orphans but about "honoring God in the lives of those who are hurting."
In total, 33.3 million adults and children are living with HIV in the world today.
On the Web: www.projecthopeful.org