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Telling the world the story of AIDS

A local church leader promises that an exhibit on the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa will be 'very moving, very emotional'
by: Jaime Valdez, Jim and Sue Walcutt are coordinating the “World Vision Experience: AIDS — Step Into Africa” exhibit at Sunset Presbyterian Church April 11-14. The exhibit features the real-life stories of four African students.

Visiting the 'World Vision Experience: AIDS - Step Into Africa' exhibit in Orange County, Calif., last year, Sue Walcutt and her husband Jim were visibly moved as they toured was an almost 2,500-square-foot replica of an African village.

During that time, the couple heard the heartbreaking stories of four children personally affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic that has significantly altered the lives of about 25 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa.

'It's a very moving, very emotional experience,' Walcutt, a member of Sunset Presbyterian Church, said of the traveling exhibit.

Although her church had already committed to hosting the educational AIDS exhibit, Walcutt said she wanted to see it for herself, saying she became even more excited about the display coming to Beaverton.

On April 11 through 14, Sunset Presbyterian will host the 'World Vision's Experience: AIDS - Step Into Africa' exhibit as part of the tour's only trip to Oregon.

For Walcutt, just how devastating the HIV/AIDS epidemic has been in Third World nations was highlighted two years ago during a leadership summit she attended. It was there that Bono, the lead singer for the band U2, had asked the Chicago pastor in charge of the conference if he could talk about AIDS and the importance of getting the word out to church communities.

'So Bono agreed to do a taped interview (from Ireland) for a session for this leadership summit,' she said. 'My husband and I were aware of Bono and the AIDS pandemic, but it really hadn't touched our hearts (yet).'

That soon changed when the Walcutts became more involved with an AIDS task force at their church that includes numerous members who are involved in the local chapter of World Vision's Women of Vision.

World Vision is a Christian relief and development organization that's dedicated to helping children b addressing issues of poverty.

Contacted in Twin Falls, Idaho, where he's setting up the 'World Vision Experience: AIDS - Step Into Africa' exhibit, tour manager Jonathan Brown said the idea is to engage participants on a variety of levels.

'Some people call it interactive; some call it multi-sensory,' said Brown.

Those attending in Beaverton will be greeted by a narrator before using headphones to guide them through the display, which focuses on four African children whose lives have been dramatically changed by the disease.

'Each of the four children we profile are real kids,' said Brown. 'The stories are taken out of specific times in the children's lives.'

Those children include Kobo, Babirye, Emmanuel and Mathabo.

'When you get your headset it takes about 20 minutes to walk through,' said Brown.

Brown said the goal is to step into the lives of the children in order to be 'transported into their world.'

Traveling with a staff of three others, Brown said World Vision does not charge host churches for the exhibit. Brown said exhibit photos of the children and their surroundings were used to recreate the village, which includes everything from thatched huts to a banana grove where one of the children, Emmanuel, was discovered living with his older brother after they lost a parent. Stacked rocks in the exhibit recall the actual gravesite where one of Emmanuel's parents is buried.

The accuracy and design of the exhibits are often praised, said Brown.

Brown, who himself witnessed has witnessed some of the 'senseless poverty' during a visit to Kenya, calls the children featured in the exhibit 'heroes' and hopes that the display will wake up society about the plight of those who are touched daily by HIV/AIDS.

For Brown, the tour is both rewarding and exhausting with a schedule that will result in visits to 80 cities (between an east and west exhibiting group) throughout the nation before it's over.

Meanwhile, Walcutt said the exhibit allows participants to use all their senses.

'You have a face and a story of a child,' she said. 'You understand what their world is like.'

Although exhibit-goers usually only focus on one child during the presentation, Walcutt said both she and her husband went through twice during their California visit, allowing them to understand the experiences of all four children.

The way the scenario is played out at the end is that everyone is marshaled into a health clinic to be 'tested' for the HIV virus and asked to sit in specific areas that call attention to whether they are 'positive' or 'negative.'

'My hand was stamped with a bright red (positive) symbol, and I was told to sit on a bench with that symbol above it,' she said. There she got a taste of what it might feel like to have the stigma associated with the disease.

The 'World Vision Experience: AIDS - Step Into Africa' tour will be displayed inside the gymnasium at Sunset Presbyterian Church, 14986 Cornwell Road, from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. on April 11, and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on April 12 through 14.

'It's a big exhibit,' said Walcutt. '(It) requires 252 volunteers over the four days.'

Each volunteer works a four-hour shift, and the church is still looking for volunteers.

Visit the church Web site at sunsetpres.org/experience or go to www.worldvision.org for volunteer information.