AIDS activist makes a difference on 2 continents

Mothers toted babies in slings on their backs, with young children tugging on their skirts, as men and women of all ages trekked miles on red dirt roads to receive coveted free health care at tents scattered across Africa in Ghana, Uganda, Nigeria and South Africa.

Over three days last spring, more than 340,000 people gathered at the health camps to receive a variety of health services, including polio drops and measles vaccines. But the primary goal was to get tested for HIV and, if necessary, receive treatment.

Meanwhile, here in Georgia, thousands of middle and high school students fill auditoriums year after year to hear young HIV-positive men and women share their stories, pierce myths about HIV and encourage young people to protect themselves from the deadly disease. About 500,000 students have participated in the AIDS Awareness program since its inception in 1998.

Behind both of these monumental efforts is one Atlanta woman — Marion Bunch, a 76-year-old grandmother with spiky black hair, bulldog-like tenacity and boundless energy.

Bunch knows about the ravages of AIDS. Her son died from the disease during the early years of the epidemic, and she funneled her anger and grief into a global AIDS-battling mission rooted in Atlanta and flourishing in communities half a world away.

About 35 million people worldwide are living with HIV/AIDS. Here in Georgia, where the rate of HIV infection is almost twice the national rate, more than 50,000 people have the disease. In 2012 alone there were 2,911 new HIV diagnoses in the state, according to the Georgia Department of Health.

Today is World AIDS Day, a time to demonstrate solidarity in the face of the pandemic and to reflect on the work that remains to be done. Locally it will be marked by music, free HIV testing, a display of the AIDS Memorial quilt at the Emory University quad.

Atlanta is renowned as the home base for large institutions on the front lines in the fight against AIDS — from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to CARE to the Task Force for Global Health. Lesser known are highly motivated and innovative individuals and their roles in stemming the tide of the disease.

On a cool fall evening in 1986, Bunch’s son, Jerry, nervously looked up from his plate at a dimly lit restaurant in St. Louis. He had invited his mom to dinner with one goal in mind. He had to tell her he was gay.

Believe me, mom, it isn’t what I chose to be, but it’s just who I am,” Jerry told her.

He was 20, living in St. Louis. His mother, a sales rep at the time, lived in Atlanta, but was in St. Louis on a business trip.

Bunch had long suspected her only son was gay. She told him she loved him, but in truth, she was reeling. She worried about her son being ostracized. At the time, AIDS was poorly understood and public anxiety was heightened. Her fears were ultimately confirmed: Jerry lost jobs; he was beat up.

Two years later, Jerry called his mother from the hospital. He was sick with bronchitis. He was also diagnosed with HIV. At the time, there was no effective treatment.

Bunch watched her son grow pale, thin, fragile. And she saw the stigma accompanying his diagnosis — the fear, the ignorance, the demeaning treatment.

Jerry died in January 1994 at age 28. Bunch was distraught — and also angry.

Friends didn’t know what to say, so they said nothing. Bunch, divorced from Jerry’s father and remarried, didn’t feel like she could talk to anyone outside her family about her loss. She grew isolated.

But three years later, during a Rotary meeting, Bunch felt a tap on the shoulder and a voice in her ear: Mom, get up and get going, it’s been three years and you haven’t done anything.

Bunch approached the Dunwoody Rotary club president with an idea to develop an AIDS education program for young people. Rotarians were receptive to the idea, but Bunch knew she needed to partner with experts in the field of AIDS. So she met with AID Atlanta, an organization that had been trying to get programs into schools – without any traction. Forget it, the staff told her.

But Bunch doesn’t let things go easily.

She convinced AID Atlanta to develop a speakers program. AID Atlanta would train and enlist the HIV-positive speakers. Rotary members would coordinate with the schools.

Meanwhile, Bunch worked her contacts and gained support from fellow Rotarian Jennie Springer, who was principal at Dunwoody High School at the time.

“You have to remember this was the mid-1990s and you couldn’t just Google information on AIDS,” said Springer. “This was not a comfortable time for teachers and administrators to talk about AIDS. But Marion was very convincing. She said we must get into the schools. I believed in her.”

To extend the program throughout the state, Bunch needed to receive approval from 28 county review boards. One by one she made her pitch. One by one, they all said yes.

At the beginning, the program started small with intimate groups of high school students meeting quietly in cafeterias. Over time, the program expanded into middle and high school auditoriums across the country.

Bunch made her first trip to Africa in 2001 on the invitation of a fellow Rotarian, who was checking on a delivery of donated hospital equipment. She was stunned by the conditions of the rural clinic in Burundi. The rooms were windowless. There were no nurses. Patients had to bring their own blankets and food. Overwhelmed by the AIDS epidemic, clinics couldn’t provide care for the dying.

While in Burundi, Bunch was struck by the children who told her what they wanted most was to go to school. Upon her return, she started a program to provide them health and educational services. She recruited assistance from Rotary volunteers and others. She continued to visit Africa several times a year. She stopped counting at 45.

The idea for Rotary Family Health Days germinated in 2010 when a Uganda Rotary leader asked Bunch to help develop a program that conducts HIV testing and counseling. Bunch knew families wouldn’t line up for HIV services alone, so she suggested health camps that would provide everything from HIV testing to polio immunization and even hand out malaria nets. Bunch partnered with the CDC and the United States Agency for International Development, and she secured hundreds of thousands of dollars from The Coca-Cola Africa Foundation to fund the program. Then she enlisted more than 8,000 Rotary volunteers in four African countries to assist the annual effort. It’s been so successful, she plans to expand the program to India in 2015.

“Marion is very driven and very convincing,” said Dr. Jim Curran, dean of the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University and former head of the CDC’s HIV/AIDS task force during the early 1980s. “For her, it was like, ‘What do I have to lose?’ And when things didn’t go her way, she didn’t sour. She just kept at it, and kept at it, and that says a lot about her persistence and her courage.”

On a recent afternoon in her home office on the the 20th floor of a Buckhead tower, Bunch reflected on meeting a grandmother last spring in the slums of Johannesburg, South Africa. The woman had lost two children to AIDS and was taking care of two young grandsons — one of whom was HIV-positive. Inside the tiny house on a hillside, Bunch placed her arm around the woman’s shoulder, and shared her story.

“Here we were, with the same worries, the same sadness, the same anger,” Bunch said.

A framed photo of Jerry with the family dog, sits on her desk. He is about 16 years old, looking happy and healthy.

Bunch says she continues to feel her son’s presence every once in a while.

“I can hear him say, ‘This is so cool mom,’ and I know he is here with me.’”

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