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His name is Asnaka, it means strength. He has been living with HIV/AIDS for 19 years. As the first patient exposed to the IOCC and Ethiopian Orthodox Church program, he now works for the organization as a hope messenger or a community focal person. He has followed more than 140 infected people in his community, orchestrating support through home-based care providers and nursing countless individuals back to health himself. It is difficult to find the words that do justice to the spirit of this man, a “modern day saint” in his own arena. He carries stories that illustrate his character and that of the program: stories of providers that raised money among neighboring families to build modest shelters for homeless patients on church property; providers who gave humbly of themselves, providing patients in need with clothes, food, and money. He and his fellow care-givers are a testament to the effort that goes on at the ground level, the heart of the IOCC program.

I was blessed with the opportunity to get to know these people during the three months I spent in Ethiopia as an HIV/AIDS and public health intern for IOCC. Among other program activities, I devoted my time to developing a general needs assessment and report of the home-based care component to be used as a baseline dataset for future projects. I also helped submit a “Food for Education” USDA grant and conducted an ART (antiretroviral drug therapy) training course in selected branch offices.

The individuals that I met and spent time with during my internship gave me gifts far greater than they will ever realize. Faith, strength, and humility shined from their hearts, and their goodwill was immeasurable.

Families took us into their homes, prepared food generously, and offered the universal language of sincere kindness. Priests welcomed us into their churches with open arms and shared the history of their beliefs honestly. Teachers invited us to the church celebration events of their children, events that had the ability to move one when listening with closed eyelids to the deep sound of the drum and the angelic voices of the children. Neighbors offered kind greetings and a helping hand without hesitation.

I am truly thankful for the time I spent in Ethiopia, and I have learned invaluable lessons from the special people I met. They taught me that despite the different capacities one may work in, an overriding sense of caring and humility is what makes a difference in the lives of others. As I look towards the future, the strength of the Ethiopian people and the inspiration they gave me will always be with me. These people are the essence of IOCC’s work. They are the character of the organization.

— Sara Tomczyk

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