Center News

Saving lives in Soweto

Sept. 4, 2003
Dr. Tom Darden and Sharon Bloome of Rotary #4

Dr. Tom Darden of SCHARP with Sharon Bloome of the Rotary Club of Seattle No. 4. The club raised money to help support an HIV clinic in Soweto.

Photo by Todd McNaught

While chatting over a Passover Seder in the spring of 2002, Sharon Bloome and Dr. Tom Darden never imagined that their casual conversation might set off a chain of events to benefit the world's most devastating public-health crisis.

But as Bloome, an active member of the Rotary Club of Seattle No. 4, the nation's fourth oldest and one of the largest clubs of Rotary International, points out, "You never know how a project will come to your attention."

At the dinner, Bloome had described to Darden her club's pledge, following Nelson Mandela's 1999 visit to Seattle, to support humanitarian projects in South Africa. Darden, deputy director of Fred Hutchinson's Statistical Center for HIV/AIDS Research and Prevention (SCHARP), told Bloome of his program's mission to test vaccines and other prevention strategies for AIDS in Africa and around the world.

"Suddenly, it clicked," Bloome said. "I told Tom that we were looking for projects to support, and asked, 'Could we partner with you?'"

Thanks to that dinner-table discourse, a clinic in Soweto, South Africa, that provides meals each day to hundreds of HIV-infected patients is now the beneficiary of a $16,000 Rotary grant that was used to purchase kitchen equipment, a van and a computer.

The clinic provides social support for patients who attend the Perinatal HIV Research Unit at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, a partner site of the HIV Vaccine Trials Network, whose coordinating center is housed at Fred Hutchinson. The support clinic is operated by HIVSA, a South African non-governmental organization.

Rotary generosity

Ginny Mes, HIVSA's finance coordinator, said in a recent e-mail to Bloome that the grant will enable the clinic to feed many more people.

"Currently we are cooking meals for up to 200 people a day," she wrote. "With the cold weather beginning to bite, we anticipate needing to provide for even greater numbers. Having a cooker that doesn't trip the electricity every two minutes will immediately make working conditions better. Rest assured that Rotary's generosity will touch the lives of an awful lot of people."

The grant is part of an overall $50,000 raised by the Rotary Club of Seattle and the Seattle Rotary Service Foundation to support 16 projects in South Africa. "With additional contributions from our Rotary district, other Rotary clubs in our district, Rotary clubs in South Africa and their district and Rotary International's grant matching program, our initial $50,000 pledge has been leveraged to more than $175,000," Bloome said.

Rotary is an organization of business and professional leaders worldwide who provide humanitarian service, encourage high ethical standards in all vocations and help build goodwill and peace. Approximately 1.2 million Rotarians belong to more than 30,000 Rotary clubs in 166 countries.

Because Rotary International restricts matching grants to countries with Rotary clubs, for this project the Rotary Club of Seattle and the DesMoines Rotary Club established a partnership with the South African Rotary Club of Meyerton/Henley-on-Klip, which also donated money toward the clinic grant.

"That partnership is one of most exciting aspects of the project," said Bloome, who served for eight years as matching-grants coordinator for Rotary district 5030. "The Meyerton/Henley-on-Klip club had never before participated in any projects to benefit the HIV clinic. Now that its Rotarians are aware of it, they are actively committed to supporting the clinic and plan to pursue additional projects for its benefit."

While the Soweto clinic may serve the local community, it has the potential to impact the worldwide AIDS epidemic through its association with the Perinatal HIV Research Unit at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, which is directed by Drs. James McIntyre and Glenda Gray.

"James McIntyre and Glenda Gray have established a first-rate research unit that takes part in many HIV/AIDS prevention studies, including several that are coordinated here at Fred Hutchinson," Darden said. "But the satellite clinics that provide social and health services to the study participants are very Spartan and clearly in need of support. Donations like the Rotary grant really make a difference."

Darden said that although the primary role of the satellite clinics is to offer ancillary health services, they also provide HIV counseling and testing.

Worldwide impact

"The more resources these clinics have to offer, the more visitors will drop in-and will be exposed to these important HIV-prevention messages," he said.

Based on the success of their first collaboration, Darden and Bloome now plan to enlist colleagues from their respective organizations to discuss the possibility of future Rotary grants to other HIV/AIDS prevention-clinic sites around the world that are affiliated with Fred Hutchinson research.

"The scope of this humanitarian project is truly unusual in that it could have a worldwide impact," Bloome said. "If a cure or prevention for AIDS is found, we will know that our efforts went far beyond a clinic in South Africa."

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is a world leader in research to prevent, detect and treat cancer and other life-threatening diseases.