When Gregory Gross walked into the milk aisle at Target a few weeks ago, tears began rolling down his cheeks.
"Not only can I just go and buy milk, I can make a choice of what milk I want," he said. "That's what's difficult for me: coming back to our land of plenty, more like land of excess … I come back angry at the inequity in our world that doesn't need to be."
On Oct. 31, Gross returned from a 15-day trip to Zimbabwe. But he didn't travel to the African nation to go on a safari or visit its majestic natural wonders.
He went to see how HIV ravages the lives of its citizens.
Gross, 31, is the clinical manager of the HIV testing and prevention program at the Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted. He is also a deacon in the United Methodist Church. Because of his two professions, Zimbabwe and an initiative called Project Tariro fell into his lap late this summer.
Planting a seed of hope
The vision for Project Tariro emerged in 2001 when two Zimbabwean citizens came to Rev. Paul Van Buren, Ph.D., with a proposal; because of Van Buren's involvement in a number of programs in Zimbabwe, they hoped he could help start a treatment and respite center for Zimbabweans infected with HIV/AIDS.
"They were really alarmed by the AIDS impact on the families," Van Buren said. "The stigma was so great that the families would shun their own family members once they got AIDS and so they had envisioned a project that would help people live positively with AIDS."
Van Buren and his colleagues imagined a holistic program that would provide HIV/AIDS testing, counseling, home-based care, micro-entrepreneurial skills training and a community awareness program, just to name a few components.
But because of a turbulent economic and political atmosphere in Zimbabwe, Project Tariro"Tariro" means "hope" in Shona, a native language of Zimbabwehad a hard time getting off the ground. A U.S. travel ban to Zimbabwe did not help matters.
The only traction the endeavor gained during a six-year period came from a supportive partnership between Africa University's faculty of Health Sciences, The United Methodist Church in Zimbabwe and Friends of Project Tariro, a U.S.-based organization created to raise funds for the project.
But on Oct. 15 Project Tariro made a giant stride toward implementation. That day a group of 12 United Methodist Church deacons met in Nashville, Tenn., to journey to Old Mutare in the Manicaland province of Zimbabwe, where Project Tariro had found an epicenter.
That's where Gross came in.
Two different worlds
In late summer 2009, Project Tariro organizers from the United Methodist Church found Gross and requested that he participate in an HIV/AIDS immersion trip to the Manicaland province. When Gross said he couldn't afford the expense, the church came up with a travel grant.
"I was kind of the HIV expert on the trip," he said. "Because I am a deacon in the United Methodist Church and because of my work [ at the Center on Halsted ] they thought it was a good fit."
And a good fit it was. During his 15 days in Manicaland, Gross spent much of his time at the Voluntary Counseling and Testing Clinic ( VCT ) at Old Mutare Mission Hospital. Gross and his colleagues discovered that the VCT runs a program similar to the HIV testing and prevention program at the Center on Halsted where locals come to get tested for HIV and receive pre- and post-test counseling.
If they come back positive, the clinic offers a multitude of holistic programs that teach people to live positively with HIV. For Gross, the most significant component of the program was its 80-person, mostly female support group where members spend entire days doing everything from singing songs to learning about safer sex. After touring the hospital on his second day in Zimbabwe, support group facilitators asked him to come back to participate in a session.
"That was just wonderful for me in particular because these women that I met are doing the same job that I do here," Gross said. "I was excited to have a counterpart."
The facilitators told Gross that 30 percent of people test positive for HIV at the VCT.
"Here at the Center on Halsted our worst month was 3.5 percent and that was huge," he said. "Ten times our bad month is what they see on an average basis."
This staggering number is just a small part of why Gross and Van Buren see necessity for the VCT and Project Tariro. Zimbabwe's Ministry of Health reported in 2007 that 15.6 percent of the populationor 1.5 million Zimbabweanswere HIV-positive, according to the United States Agency for International Development.
But those are just the government statistics. Gross said health officials at Africa University estimate that the number is closer to 20 or 25 percent of the population. In the United States in 2007 about 1.1 million people had HIV, but that equaled less than one-half of 1 percent of the population at the time, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Population Reference Bureau.
But Gross and his colleagues learned something potentially more devastating.
According to Van Buren, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency ( SIDA ) is ending its funding of the VCT program at the end of 2009, leaving these 80 people without the support they need.
A perfect fit
Project Tariro had been searching for a way to launch its mission for six years. The VCT had already established most of the programs Project Tariro wished to start itself: HIV testing and counseling, a support group, a nutritional gardening program, micro-entrepreneurial skills training, holistic home-based care, and an advocacy and community outreach program.
Project Tariro's board already had plans to discuss a takeover of the VCT, but Gross and his colleagues' presence at a board meeting expedited the board's decision to move forward.
"Since I had spent two days at the VCT, I was able to say in the board meeting, 'Look, this is what they're doing, this is the success they're having,'" Gross said.
And so Project Tariro finally progressed from vision to reality.
"Through Project Tariro these projects will continue," Gross said. "It's a wonderful thing that's going on."
Back to life as usual?
Coming back to his life in America was difficult for Gross, less because of the broken lives he saw than because of the guilt that seeped into his life.
"We come in, we hear their story, we leave. Then what? How does that really help them?" Gross said.
But this overwhelming sense of responsibility is also what makes Gross determined to play a positive role in the lives of Old Mutare's HIV positive residents, even from the United States.
Gross plans to stay in contact with VCT facilitators and the Board of Project Tariro as an informal HIV consultant. He also hopes to stay in touch with a number of HIV-infected people he met in Old Mutare. Refusing to forget these people is largely how Gross plans to pay tribute.
"There are some stories I can't tell without breaking into tears," he said. "But right now [ I'm continuing my involvement by ] really telling those stories."
Gross will be speaking at churches across the country about Project Tariro, but he understands that discourse can't fund a project; the underlying goal of telling the stories is to raise funds.
Van Buren, who is now the president of Friends of Project Tariro, said the project needs to raise $200,000 by 2011. So far they have raised $80,000.
"At the Project their goal is to expand the reach of the VCT program and increase the services that it provides," Van Buren said. "That will take more volunteers and more supplies, but there are [ still up to 1,000 ] people who need assistance."
The project is relying on donations until it becomes a tax-exempt non-profit organization and can apply for grants, according to Van Buren. This could happen as soon as March 2010.
This Christmas Gross will be donating to Project Tariro in the name of his family and friends. But Gross said what he gives back financially is just as important as what VCT facilitators gave him.
"It's not just us going there to do what we can," he said. "I learned so much from the women that are doing my work there in Zimbabwe, you know, two-way street."
Gross said he hopes to incorporate the holistic nature of the VCT programits broader approach to life with HIV rather than just dealing with HIV itselfinto support groups at the Center on Halsted. But he was also struck by a less tangible quality of the VCT, one that manifested itself in the voices of the support group members combined in song.
Gross hoped to bring that to the Center on Halsted.
"I don't know how to use it yet, but it was that joyfulness, the breaking into song that I think we can learn from," he said.
To learn more about Project Tariro, see www.projecttariro.com .