Hearts Everywhere Reaching Out for Children, Inc.
Georgia ranks sixth in the nation in reported pediatric and adolescent AIDS cases, and has the fifth highest number of adult AIDS cases in the country (www.cdc.gov). Children and adolescents living with HIV/AIDS suffer from many negative effects of the disease, including depression, low self-esteem, anger management issues, low academic performance and mental illness. Furthermore, children infected with and affected by HIV/AIDS are often victims of discrimination, alienation, forced to cope with end of life issues at an early age, and have to deal with the trauma of watching a loved one die.
Hearts Everywhere Reaching Out for Children, Inc. (HERO) has been committed to improving the quality of life for these children through enriching programs, unforgettable experiences, and connections with the community for the past seven years.The organization was founded in 2003 by two University of Georgia graduates who had two separate, but similar experiences working alongside children infected with and affected by HIV/AIDS in Brazil and Africa. Both observed that although the children’s basic needs (i.e. food, housing, and medical attention) were being addressed, no specific ‘quality of life’ (QOL) care services were being provided. After researching this phenomenon in Georgia, the founders discovered that none of the 500 HIV/AIDS service organizations in Georgia addressed the QOL needs of children. As a result, HERO for Children was created. HERO defines quality of life as the degree to which an individual enjoys physical, social, and emotional well-being and sees him/herself as being able to experience future success and fulfillment. Under this umbrella, the organization offer life skills development, emotional support, education forums and recreational activities which yield positive life outcome perceptions via a variety of experiences.
HERO currently serves more than 500 kids through 18,000 hours of quality of life care with more than 1,000 volunteers. The organization’s unique mission includes an often overlooked population—children who are affected by HIV/AIDS. An affected child is someone who has an infected parent, sibling, residential relative or has lost a relative to HIV/AIDS related complications. Approximately 33 % of HERO children are HIV positive and the other 67% are affected. Nearly 25% of HERO children have lost a parent to HIV/AIDS- related complications. HERO serves a majority low-income population, and does not charge a fee to parents/guardians for any of its services or programs.
One of HERO's first objectives was to build a credible, experience and supportive Board. This was accomplished with the addition of the Head of Global Pediatric Aids for the CDC, a partner in a major accounting firm, a Human Resource Executive as well as a retired Chairman & CEO along with Vince Dooley (former UGA Athletic Director), Mark Richt (UGA Head Football Coach) and Paul Hewitt (GT Basketball Coach). Nearly all of these Board members are still actively involved and very supportive of HERO's mission. HERO grew from a start-up in donated office space to an organization that raised over $1 million dollars in its fifth year. Part of those funds were developed through college philanthropy organizations at the University of Georgia (UGA HERO) and Georgia Tech (GT HERO), members of which spend their year raising funds to support HERO programs. In 2008, UGA HERO raised a record $363,000 for the organization with over 2,000 student philanthropists. UGA HERO and GT HERO also host annual recreational events which allow them to meet and interact with the children for whom they raise funds.
HERO’s programmatic plan is a holistic approach to making the greatest impact in the lives of each child served. Key programs include:
The Super HERO Mentoring Program: a vehicle via which children improve their self-esteem, self-confidence, goal setting, socialization skills, and life exposure. This program began in partnership with Big Brothers/Big Sisters (BBBS) of Atlanta, whereas BBBS recruited, trained, and matched suitable mentors (“Super HEROs”) with HERO children (“Littles”). Three years later, HERO had developed the financial and human resources needed to create such “matches” internally. The program currently has a five-pillar foundation that includes: 1) mentor training, 2) bi-monthly meetings between mentors and mentees, 3) continuing education for mentors, 4) quarterly group activities for Super HEROs and their Littles, and 5) an annual mentor appreciation and awards luncheon. This program has grown significantly since its inception, and served over 75 children by 2009. Several of our mentoring matches have lasted over four years and give children the necessary support their ailing parents/caregivers may not be able to provide on a consistent basis. Several children who have participated in the program have gone on to college.
The Rising HERO Life Skills Program: a curriculum-based educational program, developed in partnership with professionals at Emory University, which addresses key challenges facing HERO children. Sessions endeavor to increase self-esteem and confidence, improve anger management strategies, develop problem solving & conflict resolution skills, build good study habits, and educate on gang and relationship violence. The program unites community volunteers, HERO children and trained facilitators to develop the life skills necessary for the children to overcome these challenges. Currently in its third cycle, this program serves 30-40 children annually.
Camp High Five: an annual week-long, residential summer camp program with recreational activities and educational workshops designed for children infected with and affected by HIV/AIDS. Camp High Five was founded in 2001 by a Nurse Practitioner at Grady Hospital. HERO acquired the program in 2009, and successfully conducted its first camp session during the summer of 2010 with 64 children attending. Camp High Five allows children to engage in a wide range of recreational activities they may not otherwise be able to experience, including horseback riding, archery, hiking and boating. They are also afforded the opportunity meet and develop friendships with children who have similar life experiences.
Holiday of HEROes: an annual outreach in which HERO partners with local AIDS organizations and hospitals to provide children with one gift they need and one gift they want during the holiday season. This major initiative requires large numbers of volunteers to reach the many families across Georgia affected by HIV/AIDS during the holidays. This program served a record 363 children from across Georgia in 2009.
HERO for a Day: an annual outdoor, recreational event implemented to provide a respite for children who must deal with the negative effects of HIV/AIDS and a myriad of adult responsibilities on a daily basis. It is a high-energy afternoon that includes competitive field-day games, jumbo inflatables, obstacle courses, rock walls, and incredible entertainment such as DJs, break dancers and car shows. Every year, over 200 volunteers put on their tennis shoes and become “HEROes for a Day” in the lives of these children. In partnership with Westminster High School, this event, one of HERO’s “unforgettable experiences,” serves approximately 250 children from Atlanta, Macon, Augusta, Athens and Albany each year.
These programs have had significant impacts in the lives of our children, as evidenced by the following case stories:
DJ suffered from a severe speech impediment, which affected her academic performance and ability to develop good peer relationships. Almost three years after being matched with her Super HERO, LP, a speech therapist, this child’s ability to communicate with others has improved significantly, and she has developed solid friendships with children her age.
JH, a child who often fought in school and was suspended on several occasions, uses the skills he learned in the Rising HERO program to manage his anger. He is now able to deal with potentially volatile situations more effectively, which has resulted on reduced instances of his acting out in school.
CJ’s father died of AIDS-related complications. He was unable to attend his father’s funeral due to family conflicts regarding his diagnosis. At Camp High Five, CJ was able to say “goodbye” to his father at the annual “HIV ceremony,” during which participants are given the opportunity to recognize loved ones lost to the disease.
Several parents/caretakers have reported that the only Christmas gifts their children received in 2009 came from HERO, as they were unable to afford presents. They are extremely thankful for the Holiday of HEROes program.
HF lives in a single-parent home. Her mother has AIDS, is in poor health, and is often too weak to manage normal household responsibilities. As the eldest child, HF must often care for her mother and younger siblings, prepare meals for the family, and even tend to their finances. HF attended HERO for a Day in 2009, and was able to ‘just be a kid’ for one day.
Support from HERO’s generous donors will assist the organization in creating more of these stories. Monies raised will allow HERO to serve more children who are in need of such programs, as well as develop and implementation of new programs designed to meet their needs (i.e. health education and job readiness programs).
HERO is an organization positioned to address the unique needs of children whose futures are affected by this life-altering pandemic. It is providing today’s children the chance to blossom into responsible adults who, in turn, will become positive contributors of tomorrow- despite their HIV status.