The scheduled visit today of President Bush has turned the spotlight on a Carroll County church that has helped a ministry for Namibian orphans, many of whom have lost their families to AIDS.
This morning, Bush plans to attend a meeting at Calvary United Methodist Church in Mount Airy to discuss the battle against the deadly virus and showcase grass-roots efforts in that fight.
The meeting comes one day before the 20th annual World AIDS Day, established to raise global awareness of the disease.
"We were surprised. Who wouldn't be?" the Rev. Dennis Yocum said of the presidential visit. His church sent 18 volunteers to Namibia this past summer, a fact that contributed to its selection for the visit, White House spokesman Alex Conant said.
"The president wanted to highlight that effort," Conant said.
The morning meeting at the large, gray-stoned church on South Main Street also is expected to focus on Bush's emergency plan for AIDS relief, and his five-year, $30 billion proposal for additional funding.
The Children of Zion Village, a home to 55 kids ages 2 to 17, sits in the northeast corner of Namibia, outside the town of Katima Mulilo, in a sliver of a panhandle above Botswana. It was launched nearly five years ago by a Harford County church that continues to fund its daily operations, with the dual goals of spreading the gospel and playing an active role in responding to the AIDS epidemic.
In Namibia's Caprivi Strip, where the 17-acre Children of Zion is located, the situation is bleak. The prevalence of HIV/AIDS climbs above 40 percent, said Rebecca Mink, a missionary who runs the home with her husband, Gary. Between 4,000 and 5,000 children are affected by the disease, she added, either losing their parents to it or contracting the virus themselves.
The southern African region, which includes Namibia, accounts for 35 percent of all the people in the world with HIV, and more than 30 percent of new infections and AIDS deaths in 2007, according to a new report from the World Health Organization and UNAIDS, the joint United Nations program for HIV/AIDS. Among Namibia's estimated population of 2,031,000, about 230,000 individuals are living with HIV, according to UNAIDS.
The need for an orphans' home in the region led the Minks and their congregation at Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Bel Air to open Children of Zion in 2003. They also feed more than 100 orphans in a nearby village, said Mink and Lisa McLaughlin, chair of the nonprofit organization behind the Namibian ministry.
Beyond physical needs, Children of Zion Village aims to educate the children. A school building and small farm on the grounds serve as places for lessons and provide opportunities many people in the region will never have, McLaughlin said.
For Kevin Meadows and Sarah B. Dorrance, both Calvary volunteers who served at Children of Zion Village this summer, the children's potential was evident.
"They're all very unique individuals that are just as talented as any kids you would find at some prep school in the United States," said Meadows, a Frederick County teacher who spent about two months teaching and coaching the kids.
The only difference, he added, was "where they happen to be born. ... Just given that extra bit of opportunity, I think they could really do whatever they want."
Calvary first sent volunteers to Namibia in the spring of 2006, as part of an evolving short-term mission program, said Dorrance, who is completing seminary studies and led one of the teams this summer.
After having supported the Minks and their earlier ministries for more than a decade, church members decided a couple years ago to augment their financial contributions with their time, Dorrance and Yocum said.
"Lives have been transformed," Dorrance said, recalling a 9-month-old boy who was brought to Children of Zion last year after his mother died from AIDS.
"He was weaker than a newborn baby," Dorrance said.
This summer, Dorrance returned to find a "happy" boy "running around like a 1 1/2 -year-old does. ... It was just really a joy and blessing because he would have died a year ago," she said.
About 33.2 million people worldwide are estimated to be living with HIV this year, according to the WHO-UNAIDS report. About 2.1 million people died of AIDS in 2007, the report stated.
Mink and others associated with the orphanage expressed excitement about Bush's visit, and the attention it is drawing to the epidemic.
"My hope and desire is that more churches and more groups and individuals will become partners with either Children of Zion" or other organizations, Mink said.