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Finding Ways to Help

By Kim Bradley

When Sherrie Dunlap spent spring break working with AIDS patients in Brazil earlier this year, she saw adults who were in the terminal stages of the disease; who were found on the street, suffering alone. When she met those people, when she heard their stories and held their hands, Sherrie knew she wanted to do more.

Sherrie Dunlap discusses ideas for World AIDS Day.

Sherrie Dunlap, a junior at Saint Vincent College, discusses plans for World AIDS Day with her peers at the National AIDS Ministry Gathering in July. Photo by Kevin Kostic/CRS

But soon, spring break was over and her time at Esperenca e Vida (Hope and Life), a Catholic AIDS clinic in São Paulo, came to an end. After helping people living with HIV and AIDS, feeding them, giving them medicine and talking with them, Sherrie had to return home.

"My new friends gave faces and a reality to a worldwide problem," Sherrie remembers. She also remembers the strong desire to continue her work — no matter where, no matter how. "Being in the presence of AIDS was an experience I will never forget, and I brought that reality home with me."

Doing Something

Back at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, the 21-year-old junior and editor-in-chief of her college newspaper vowed to learn more about the virus and to raise awareness about the pandemic on her campus. She just didn't know how.

"I wanted to do something to raise awareness on campus but I didn't know what to do," Sherrie recalls. "I didn't feel like I knew enough and the semester was coming to an end."

Then her sister told her about the College Leaders Program sponsored by Catholic Relief Services and the National Catholic AIDS Network. The program teaches students about the Catholic Church's extensive work in HIV and AIDS programming around the world, and helps them educate their peers on campus about the pandemic.

Campus Network

Sherrie joined 40 other students from 20 different colleges around the United States in an effort to educate other young people about the disease and its impact, both domestically and abroad.

"Remembering the people I met [in Brazil], I thought this is something I could do to honor them, to keep the service work going, and to learn more about the virus and what each of us can do to help."

The College Leaders Program, a six-month program leading up to World AIDS Day December 1, kicked off with a national AIDS Ministry Gathering in July. At the gathering, students received the training and education needed to start their campus campaigns. They met with leading Catholic experts on the disease and individuals living with the virus. They were then asked to take their knowledge home and put their training into action.

College Leaders

The goal of the program, now in its third year, is to get students to initiate and contribute to a series of HIV and AIDS activities, and to serve as leaders on their campuses. CRS guides the students through the course of the program by offering workshops and leadership training. Students meet other advocates from around the country and hear from people directly affected by the disease.

Students at CRS-sponsored leadership training.

College students from 20 universities gathered in Chicago for the CRS-sponsored leadership training in July. Photo by Kevin Kostic/CRS

After almost five months of being a 'college leader' and planning various activities, Sherrie still looks forward to sharing her newfound knowledge with her fellow students. "This opportunity is one that will have effects that permeate many communities, giving young people the tools to educate," she says. "And as in many cases, I believe education is the key to begin fighting problems like AIDS."

Marking World AIDS Day

At Saint Vincent, Sherrie and her team members have been planning an array of activities to mark World AIDS Day. There will be prayer services, panel discussions, various fundraisers and even an Open Mic benefit concert during the days leading up to World AIDS Day.

One of the fundraisers asks students to lose their spare change and 'put in their two cents' in the global fight against HIV and AIDS. "There will be donation bins in various offices on campus and in the residence halls, showing that if everyone gives a little bit, we can make a big difference."

Making a Difference

A percentage of the money raised through the College Leaders Program directly benefits CRS programming supporting people living with the disease. CRS operates more than 250 HIV and AIDS projects — worth more than $120 million in 2007 — in the poorest and most vulnerable areas of the developing world. With programming in 52 countries across Africa and the hardest-hit regions of Asia and Latin America, CRS has directly served more than 4 million people this year.

As World AIDS Day approaches, Sherrie is determined to honor the commitment she made at the AIDS clinic in São Paulo.

"The victims of HIV and AIDS are fellow people of the world, not faraway statistics; they are people from my generation and I want to help them."

Kim Bradley works as a communications officer for CRS. Kim recently traveled to our programs in Peru with winners of the 2007 Egan Award for Journalistic Excellence.

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