Hearts Everywhere Reaching Out for Children, Inc.
According to the CDC, youth aged 13-24 accounted for 20% of all new HIV diagnoses in the United States in 2020, despite representing only 7% of the US population (HIV Surveillance Report 2020 (cdc.gov)). 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 the many negative effects of the disease, including depression, low self-esteem, anger management issues, low academic performance, and mental illness. Furthermore, children living with and affected by HIV/AIDS are often victims of discrimination, alienation, forced to cope with the 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. (H.E.R.O.) 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 fifteen years. The organization was founded in 2003 by two University of Georgia graduates who had two separate, but similar experiences working alongside children living 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, H.E.R.O. for Children was created. H.E.R.O. 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 offers life skills development, emotional support, education forums and recreational activities which yield positive life outcome perceptions via a variety of experiences.
H.E.R.O. currently serves more than 350 kids through approximately 18,000 hours of quality of life care with more than 250 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, or residential relative or has lost a relative to HIV/AIDS-related complications. Approximately 33 % of HERO children are living with HIV/AIDS and the other 67% are affected. Nearly 25% of HERO children have lost a parent to HIV/AIDS-related complications. H.E.R.O. serves a majority low-income population, and does not charge a fee to parents/guardians for any of its services or programs.
One of H.E.R.O.'s first objectives was to build a credible, experienced, 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 (former UGA Head Football Coach) and Paul Hewitt (former GT Basketball Coach). Nearly all of these Board members are still actively involved and very supportive of H.E.R.O.'s mission. H.E.R.O. 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.
These programs have had significant impacts on 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 in 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 2016 came from HERO, as they were unable to afford presents. They are extremely thankful for the Holiday of HEROs 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 H.E.R.O.'s generous donors will assist the organization in creating more of these stories. Monies raised will allow H.E.R.O. 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).
H.E.R.O. 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.