Just Breathe

Submitted on Feb 26, 2013 by  ConnieLJohnson

“Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take but by the moments that take our breath away.” ~Hilary Cooper

There was a time in my life when the thought of taking my last breath frightened me. I wasn’t so much afraid of death as I was of leaving this earth without accomplishing anything worthwhile. It wasn’t until I was diagnosed that I realized that I no longer had the privilege of spare time. As my fear morphed into faith, I began living a life that confronted my hopes, illuminated my dreams and eventually exposed my purpose. As my vision became clearer I discovered that life can simply astound you if you allow it.

Last summer I had the pleasure of accompanying a group of nine fellow graduate students and two professors from Loyola University Chicago on an immersion trip to Kenya. For ten days my colleagues, professors and I trekked across the city of Nairobi and other rural parts of the country visiting orphanages, women’s co-ops, youth based NGO’s and educational institutions. Our mission was to gain an up close and personal view of Kenya’s interpretation of social justice and community development.

While visiting an orphanage for children who had lost one or both parents to AIDS, our tour guide paused to show us a small cemetery. Tiny white crosses bared the names of orphans whose short lives ended before the medications that now sustain millions of people living with HIV/AIDS (myself included) were made available to them. As I read each name I couldn’t help but think about my mother who I’d watch her die years earlier from the same virus that took the lives of those children. As the tour ended, I separated myself from the group to collect my thoughts and dry my tears.

While wandering around the grounds I encountered a woman sweeping a walkway. We conversed briefly about her duties at the orphanage while I snapped pictures of the colorful murals that decorated the buildings’ walls. 

At the end of our brief exchange we introduced ourselves. Her name was Gladys, the same as my mother’s. As the syllables left her lips the heaviness that filled my heart lifted, leaving me temporarily breathless and rendered speechless, yet comforted.

A few days later, our group traveled to Ngong Hill to visit Living Positive Kenya (LPK), an NGO that seeks to improve physical and psychological health and develop the social economic status of women infected and affected by HIV/AIDs and their families. As we traveled to the site, one of my professors (who was aware of my status) asked me to describe the overall mood of a women’s support group. I explained that a women’s support group is like a two hour sabbatical away from stigma and the busyness of life. For many women, the support group is the only safe space void of judgment, criticism, and shame. With that said, I warned him that the women we were visiting might be a bit reluctant to share that kind of sacred space with a group of strangers.

About thirty minutes later, we pulled up the gravel driveway. Before the van’s engine was shut off, twelve women poured out of a concrete building singing and dancing. As we exited the vehicles, the women hugged and greeted each of us as if we were their lost children finally returning home. I sat there in awe, breathless. These women had few possessions worth mentioning but had hearts that were as big as their smiles. They had one another, their children, and LPK and that was enough to sing and dance about. In that breathless moment, I vowed never to complain about the things I wanted, but didn’t own, ever again. During the group session, the women shared their stories with passion and pride. Throughout the course of our visit these women empowered me to share my story with the same power, pride, and poise. Without realizing it, they challenged me to view myself as a survivor instead of a victim. In one day, the women of LPK became my sisters and my Sheroes.

This summer I have the opportunity to return to Living Positive Kenya as an intern. In addition to reuniting with my Sheroes I will spend eight weeks learning the structure of their successful WEEP program (Women Economic Empowerment program). By August I will be adequately equipped with a Master of Art degree in Social Justice and Community Development and the professional and academic skills needed to be an agent of change on behalf of positive women around the world. As I move forward in my purpose I hope to encourage women infected and affected by HIV/AIDS realize their optimum potential and enjoy a few more breathtaking moments along the way.

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