Whitney Johnson spent her junior year of college abroad in Cape Town, South Africa.
A psychology major, she volunteered at an orphanage in Khayelitsha, one of the country’s most impoverished areas, where she saw children devastated by HIV and AIDS. During her first month in Khayelitsha, she saw three children die.
It was a far cry from her privileged upbringing in Bedford, N.Y., and the life she was leading at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colo.
“South Africa has the highest amount of people living with HIV in the world, and oftentimes when it’s that overwhelming, you feel like you don’t have the power to change anything,” Johnson said.
When Johnson returned to the United States, she was a changed person. She knew she had to make a difference in the lives of these children affected by HIV and AIDS; she couldn’t ignore what she had seen.
The Centers for Disease Control estimates that more than one million people are living with HIV in the U.S., and one in five of those people are unaware of their status. More than 18,000 people with AIDS still die each year in the U.S., according to the CDC website.
In comparison, in 2009, 33.3 million people were living with HIV globally, with the vast majority in Africa, according to the World Health Organization. More than 30 million of those people are adults, and more than two million of those people are children.
In 2008, an estimated 5.2 million people had HIV and AIDS in South Africa, and there were 1.4 million AIDS orphans.
Upon graduation from college, at the age of 21, Johnson founded a non-profit organization called Ubuntu, which is dedicated to providing health and support services to HIV-positive children in Khayelitsha. She quickly raised more than $50,000 and returned to South Africa to open a center for the first group of children.
“We hired a social worker, a nurse and we launched with 12 children,” Johnson said. “We were running out of a shack.Fast forward, we have 100 children and we have plans to build a bigger building in Khayelitsha.”
Johnson’s day care services provides everything a child in South Africa who is HIV-positive could need: A nurse to ensure they are getting and taking medicine, a social worker to help with psychological problems, and activities such as life skills, confidence building activities, yoga, art, sports and music.
“We really believe in a comprehensive care program,” Johnson said. “You can’t just single out health care, because if they aren’t happy, they aren’t going to make it. We believe in a lot of love and joy.”
Johnson lives year-round in nearby Cape Town, a 20-minute commute from Khayelitsha, and comes back to the States a few times a year to fundraise. She said although she misses her family, she wouldn’t trade her life for anything.
“There’s no question – I feel like the luckiest girl in the world to be doing what I’m doing,” Johnson said. “It’s not always an easy job, but it’s so rewarding, and I’ve never regretted it.”
Nancy Gernert, who serves on Ubuntu’s board of directors, met Johnson through a friend, and subsequently traveled with her husband and children to Khayelitsha, where she saw Johnson’s positive impact on the children. She knew she had to get involved. She hopes to travel back to South Africa next summer.
“As corny as it sounds, in some small way, I’m reaching out and helping somebody,” said Gernert, who lives in Pound Ridge, N.Y. “When it feels like the problems in this world are overwhelming . . .for me, I think as though you can begin with one person at a time.”