Students on a mission to help Africa: In 4 years, Wheaton Academy students have raised $403,000 for AIDS projects in Zambia
Posted by ssbg on January 21, 2007
Chicago Tribune – September 29, 2006
Russell Working, Tribune staff reporter, firstname.lastname@example.org
The summer before Christy Peed’s senior year at Wheaton Academy, a Zambian workman who had been like an uncle to her died.Peed had lived her first 12 years in Zambia, and the man worked at her missionary parents’ home. She was a flower girl at his wedding, and he used to help her pick pineapples ripening in their yard. He left behind a wife and two daughters.He died of AIDS.So when Peed and other student leaders at the private Christian high school searched for a charitable project that year, they settled on raising money for a schoolhouse in a Zambian village ravaged by AIDS. The cost was $53,000, a goal many of their elders considered unreachable.The students exceeded it by $25,000.
Since 2002, the West Chicago school has raised $403,000 to meet the needs of AIDS orphans and others in the Southern African nation–$148,000 of it last year alone. Along the way, they changed the perception of AIDS on campus and staked out a position in the forefront of a growing evangelical effort to help rather than judge the victims of the disease.
“I’m not trying to make excuses for how AIDS is sometimes spread,” said Peed, now a senior at Southern Wesleyan University in Central, S.C. “But it’s a lot bigger issue than having unprotected sex and using dirty needles.”
Wheaton’s 589 students have held talent shows, sponsored dodge ball tournaments and rented out their labor. They held water-ski days and pledged money based on the number of pounds some teachers shed in a crash diet.
Students even attended proms wearing thrift-shop suits and dresses, donating the cash they would have spent on tuxes and gowns to World Vision, a Christian relief and development organization that has made fighting AIDS a worldwide priority.
In addition to building a school, the Wheaton students raised $117,000 to build a clinic maternity ward and to provide medicine to help keep mothers from passing on the HIV virus to their children. They want to raise enough money to build more school facilities to serve older children.
They also spread the word to other Christian schools by hosting an annual conference on responding to the AIDS crisis.
Their success has left teachers, parents and the relief organization agape.
Recalling the first year, Tony Frank, a Chicago-based World Vision official, said, “I was skeptical. I thought, ‘Maybe they’ll make it to $10,000.'”
Anti-AIDS efforts have gained traction with evangelicals, spurred on by U2 lead singer Bono, who has urged Christians to fight global poverty and AIDS, and megachurch leaders like Rev. Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington.
Officials from several national private-school associations say they don’t track fundraising at individual schools, but Wheaton’s effort is among the largest single-school effort they know. A private school in Florida raised $135,000 last year to help victims of Hurricane Katrina, and a Catholic school in Arlington, Va., has raised $2.8 million to battle cystic fibrosis over the last 31 years through an annual dance marathon.
Wheaton Academy’s effort was unusual enough to draw the attention of the 4,000-strong Association of Christian Schools International, said spokeswoman Jan Stump, who has visited the campus to study the program.
“What they’re doing is so significant,” she said, “because one of the issues we see as important in the area of Christian schooling is that students are able to put their faith in action, and they’re able to take what they’re learning and turn it outward.”
When the Zambia Project began, student leaders looked over a list of possible fundraising projects that ranged from $30 to buy a villager two goats to the $53,000 schoolhouse. They agreed to try for the biggest on the list.
The school’s chaplain, Chip Huber, who supervises the project, says he was one of the few people who thought the kids could pull it off.
World Vision considered asking big donors to make up the anticipated shortfall at the end of the year, he said, “but the kids had a vision. They believed that God was going to help them do it.”
Christian activism is woven into Wheaton Academy’s roots: Abolitionists founded the school and nearby Wheaton College in 1853. But although ending slavery was a clear moral cause for the academy’s founders, the worldwide AIDS crisis was a murkier matter. It is often spread by behavior conservative Christians consider sinful, such as extramarital sex and drug abuse.
Peed, who was born in Zambia, faced skepticism from her fellow students early on. Kids in her anatomy class asked why they should raise money for people who’d probably had unsafe sex or shared hypodermic needles. Wasn’t there a village somewhere that needed a church?
“Some people were like, ‘I don’t want the money donated from my work to go to this project,'” Peed said.
Drawing on her own observations as a girl in Africa, she told them that many Zambian children contract HIV from their mothers. And a straying spouse can infect a faithful partner, especially in a society that sometimes shrugs off husbands’ infidelities, she said.
Besides, Huber said, how a sufferer contracts a disease is beside the point for those who wish to help.
“When he healed people, Jesus didn’t say, ‘You can do whatever you want, you can live however you want,'” Huber said. “He said, ‘Go, and live a changed life.’ But he never asked them, ‘How did you get this disease?'”
The dissent came from a minority, but project leaders agreed that students could choose to donate money they earned on workdays to other causes. In the end, Peed said, no one did.
Students’ enthusiasm has since been kindled by visits to Kakolo, the Zambian village. Matt Taylor, now a 17-year-old senior, met a family whose father had AIDS.
“He was just sitting there all wobbly,” Taylor said. “He told the story about how he had to walk every day about 40 minutes to the nearest hospital to get his pills. But some days he didn’t even have the strength to do that, and he just couldn’t take his pills because he was too sick.”
Wheaton Academy’s generosity has changed villagers’ lives, said Fordson Kafweku, a World Vision official reached by phone in Zambia. The schoolhouse–Kakolo’s first–has had a ripple effect, adding to the vitality of the village by drawing newcomers.
Part of chaplain Huber’s genius is that he lets the kids run the project, said Gene Frost, head of the school.
“Our kids don’t get to make a difference anymore,” Frost said. “Nothing depends on them getting up in the morning. Well, if you can get them tied to some activity like this where you can make a difference, it energizes them.”