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Can you recall being a teenager? Those crazy, awkward, occasionally funny and almost always dramatic moments?
I can remember my first crush. I remember the drama of finding a cafeteria seat and the stress of meeting school deadlines. There were worries about looks, about grades, about the future and especially about making friends.
In short, being a teenager is hard.
And while the teens at Lily face these same struggles, being here has allowed me to glimpse the deeper issues behind them. Issues that have shocked, saddened, and at times angered me.
The Questions They Ask
One evening I had a knock at my door. It was teenager I have come to know well.
He was clearly troubled by something. Not sure of what to do or say, I decided to make him some tea. As we sat down, and with very little introduction, he launched directly into asking questions about God, salvation, forgiveness and mercy.
I could tell mostly he wanted to talk. As he spilled out a story of brokenness, rebellion and loss, he concluded by asking me,
“How do you accept that you can’t change the past?”
I was shocked to hear the question asked by someone so young. I realized the stories of these children are a lot more complicated than I first imagined. The children of Lily are not only touched by loss, but so many of their lives are riddled with abuse and neglect.
And for teens like the boy I spoke with, regret is already becoming a fixture in their lives. They feel the pull of two societies – the love and support of Lily and an outside community that honors theft and considers drunkenness and objectification of women a rite of passage.
How Different They Are
For the first time since I’ve been here, I truly felt unqualified. Not simply because of the questions I was being asked, but because I realized these teens face yet another struggle.
A struggle of prejudice, not because of what they have done or where they’ve been born, but because of a disease they carry. At Lily of the Valley, 72 percent of the children are HIV-positive.
Only a week ago, one of the boys cut his finger. It wasn’t serious, but it was more than a scrape. I had my first-aid kit with me, so I told him to rinse off his finger so I could bandage it.
As I helped him clean the wound and apply the bandage, it suddenly occurred to me that he was almost certainly HIV-positive. While I was following all proper precautions to protect me, I was mere centimeters away from contact with an incurable disease.
For the people who work here, this is routine. I’m sure it will become routine for me as well. But this was the first time I had come that close to HIV, and I felt a twinge of fear.
The mere possibility of this disease gave me pause. But to the boy whose finger I bandaged, this disease wasn’t a possibility or hypothetical, it was a reality he lived with.
What if the million-to-one chance came true and I caught it? I’d be just a little bit more like them, and that scared me.
How Different We Make Them
But it doesn’t stop there. While doing research before this trip, I went to the local library for books. The selection was pretty thin, and I ended up with a pile of early ‘90s health books with titles like “So you have AIDS, now what?” or “HIV and You”.
Without thinking, I found myself automatically planning what I would say when I brought these books to the checkout. How I would casually mention I was doing research for a trip to South Africa. Perhaps even bring up that I would be serving HIV/AIDS orphans.
When I realized what I was doing, I was astounded. I never considered myself prejudiced, and I would have said our culture is generally accepting of HIV-positive individuals. But here I was, worried a total stranger might assume I had HIV.
I suppose, in the harshest terms, I was worried they might think I’m no better than the people I was going to help.
Familiar Struggles, Unfamiliar Strength
Now I’m here. And there are teenagers living in a world of confused morals, unanswerable questions and entrenched prejudice who are looking to me for help.
I can’t imagine how I’m supposed to be any great help. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a teenager here or the depth of suffering they’ve already experienced.
But I can remember growing up in Indiana. And I can remember that at the core of everything was the desire, just for a moment, to belong. To not be quite so different.
And when I think of that, these kids don’t seem so strange. Perhaps deeper wounds, certainly greater strength, but suddenly they seem a lot more familiar. Their struggles are much the same as my own once were, but on a scale I never could have endured.
Changing the Future
How do you accept that you can’t change the past?
For teens at Lily, it may be a question of accepting what has happened to them. For this American living abroad, it’s a question of accepting how wrong I was about these kids, and how prideful I had been.
But the answer is the same – You work to change the future.
And these kids are doing just that. Supported by the people of Lily, they are working to become kids with the skills and the drive and the passion to change South Africa from the ground up.
They are defending their dreams from a world that seeks to crush them. And in my own very small way, I’ve had the honor to witness and be a part of that.
But I know that, long after I leave, these teens will continue to re-shape their world.
How humbling, or perhaps humiliating, it is to realize that only months ago I was afraid to be mistaken for one of them.
Now, I’d be proud to be.
- Pray specifically for the struggles and prejudice these children face as HIV-positive individuals.
- Even in the United States, there is a great deal of prejudice and ignorance surrounding the HIV/AIDS crisis. LSA is creating an interactive exhibit, HIV Positive Experience, to Indianapolis to help combat this. Contact Nick Sefton for more info!
- The teen years are critical in shaping the lives of these children. For less than $5 a day, a donation to LSA can fund things like an after-school program to impact hundreds of teens.
About the Author: Brad Miller is a year-long fellow with WND. A student of Psychology, Biology, and Theatre, he's worked as an actor, teacher, balloon artist and last-minute fill-in guy for any number of projects. He loves camping and tinkering with broken and discarded things. Brad's passion in life is to unleash the potential in others.