Activist Raises Money for AIDS Orphans in Uganda By JUDITH SCHERRSpecial to the Planet

Friday June 17, 2005

Almost a quarter century ago, HIV attacked John Iversen—but it didn’t knock him out. Already a seasoned activist for social justice, Iversen kicked back with a vengeance.  

Over the years, he’s battled barriers confronting those who would live—and live well—with HIV/AIDS. Iversen’s lobbied Congress, written articles, organized demonstrations, gone to jail for affordable medicines, appropriate treatment, decent housing, needle exchange and he’s attacked the stereotypes that ostracize those with HIV/AIDS and their families.  

These days he’s using his organizing skills to raise funds for children in Uganda who have lost their parents to the disease.  

Iversen learned about the Good Spirit Support and Action Centre when he went halfway across the world to share his knowledge of activism at the October, 2003 Global Network of People Living with AIDS conference in Kampala.  

That’s where he ran into Vincent Wandera and learned about the Good Spirit Support and Action Centre, which Wandera and other HIV posi tive persons helped establish.  

A group of 12 people had come together in 1995 to support one another as they lived with HIV/AIDS, but their attention soon turned from their own needs to those of the orphaned children of friends and relatives who had die d from AIDS. Responding to the critical need, the group founded the center as an orphanage in 1997 with 37 children.  

As they cared for the children, 90 percent of whom had not contracted the virus, they came to realize that the children were being stigm atized by the disease that had killed their parents. Wandera told Iversen that the children at school would tease the orphans mercilessly, saying things like, “‘Ha, ha, your parents died of AIDS—you’re going to die of AIDS.’”  

“Children can be cruel,” I versen said. So the center added a school to the project and also a public education component: Wandera and the others in the group go out into the villages near the Good Spirit Centre to educate people about AIDS.  

The biannual conference that drew Iver sen to Kampala—this year it will be in Peru—aims at developing leadership among people living with HIV/AIDS.  

The workshop Iversen presented with South African Denis Matwa, from the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa, taught participants how to mo unt a campaign to achieve a limited, tangible goal. Iversen used as a model an initiative he organized to pressure Alameda Country officials to provide a larger space for an HIV/AIDS clinic. “I used that example because it was a concrete action on the gro und that could be replicated (and) didn’t involve civil disobedience where someone might get shot in another country,” he said.  

Participants learned the basics of soliciting endorsements, writing press releases, putting together background information, taking out paid advertisements and lobbying public officials.  

It was significant that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni spoke at the conference. Under the Museveni administration, there has been a drive to educate Ugandans on the spread of HIV/AIDS a nd advocacy for abstinence, fidelity and the use of condoms. The HIV infection rate has dropped in Uganda.  

When Vincent Wandera invited him to visit the Good Spirit orphanage in Mukono after the conference, Iversen said he was ambivalent, fearing that it would be depressing to be among the 300 orphaned children. But he was so impressed with Wandera’s selfless “love, earnestness and pride” in the center that he agreed to go.  

“(Wandera) spoke about children like he spoke of God—he sees God in children,” Iversen said. “I saw God in him.”  

And so, when a mud-splattered Iversen finally arrived there—the first leg of the 22 mile trek was on a paved road, but the second half was through a dirt road whose crevices forced the group to dismount from the hired car to push on several occasions—he saw why Wandera was so excited about the project. The children, in spotless uniforms, were proud of their school and the vegetable garden they planted to supplement their diet of mostly cornmeal porridge and the vanill a beans they grew as a cash crop.  

And they were happy to show off the new school building under construction. Some 60 volunteers came in on the weekends to build it, including making their own bricks. It was completed last July.  

The older children ar e housed on the site and the younger ones stay in homes in the surrounding countryside. Iversen says he feels compelled to help fund the project. “A small amount of money goes a long way,” he said. The salary of a teacher at the school is $50 per month; $ 25 buys bread for breakfast for 200 for four days. $100 buys enough corn flour to last four days.  

Iversen is holding two simultaneous fundraisers to help support the center. One is a benefit at the Unicorn Restaurant, 2533 Telegraph Ave., where the owne r is giving 25 percent of the tab to the center. Lunch is served from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and is priced around $10; dinner is 5-10 p.m. and costs about $25. The restaurant serves a mélange of Asian fare.  

The second fundraiser is a silent auction. A lis t of auction items appears on Craigslist at www.craigslist.org/eve/78853643.html and includes offerings as diverse as lunch for two at the Chez Panisse café, yoga classes, CDs and more. One can bid online (instructions are on Craigslist) or in person on June 22 at the Unicorn Restaurant.  

The fundraisers are co-sponsored by City Councilmembers Max Anderson, Darryl Moore, Linda Maio and the Priority Africa Network, ACT UP East Bay, Global LightWorks Foundation and others.  

Iversen hasn’t given up on the militancy for which he is well known. His arsenal of organizing tools is as diverse as the needs of people living with HIV/AIDS and the orphans they leave behind.  

He recalls the weeks he spent in the hospital in the early 90s during a very low point i n his life, when he had lost one-third of his body weight, weighed 116 pounds and was too weak to walk. “I know the suffering. It’s not something anyone should have to go through,” he said. “That motivates me.”  


Fundraiser for Good Spirit Support and Act ion Centre: June 22 at Unicorn Restaurant, 2533 Telegraph Ave. Dinner reservations suggested: 841-8098. Donations accepted at Act Up East Bay, P.O. Box 8074, Oakland, 94608. For information call 841-4339. ›i