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Students ‘touch tiny lives’ in Lesotho

Jenn Metz | Thursday, February 22, 2007

Though not an official Notre Dame endeavor, the Touching Tiny Lives Foundation (TTLF), a non-for-profit organization dedicated to the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa, is deeply rooted in the spirit of the school and its students.

Founded in August 2005, the foundation’s main function is to support the larger Touching Tiny Lives (TTL) organization in Lesotho. ND graduate Ken Storen started TTL in the summer of 2004 while he lived in the Sub-Saharan country.

During his time in Lesotho, Storen regularly took children into his home, making it the headquarters for a safe home and outreach program. After helping a single sick child, TTL has grown into a coalition that helps up to 90 children at a time in Lesotho, home of the world’s third-largest HIV/AIDS prevalence rates.

TTLF, headquartered in Leawood, Kansas, supports TTL through funding, medical equipment and research.

Notre Dame senior Megan Towle was one of the co-founders of TTLF, and participated in the foundation’s early efforts to receive approval from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and build public support.

“[TTLF] is an incredible organization,” Towle said. “In two years, it has expanded its expertise and its scope in Lesotho and the United States.”

Towle is the only student on the Board of Directors, which includes four ties to Notre Dame – alumni, law professors, parents and University President Emeritus Father Theodore Hesburgh as honorary chair.

“The organization is very Notre Dame, but not officially Notre Dame,” Towle added.

But she said she hopes this will change in the future as the University deepens its involvement in the project and adopts it as part of its Catholic mission.

She said the foundation has four strategic goals – providing children a safe home, serving as an outreach program, preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV and offering academic research opportunities for students regarding the formation of partnerships with international non-governmental organizations.

The safe home provides shelter, nutrition, warmth, medical facilities and nurturing for as many as 20 children at a time. The outreach program provides nutritional, material, medical and social services to both children who have returned to their families after living in the TTL safe home and children whose families are unable to support their development without TTL’s assistance, Towle said.

However, the main focus of her efforts with the foundation and with TTL in Lesotho is preventing mother-to-child HIV transmission. TTL seeks to reduce child infection rates and preventing mother-to-child transmission is a critical strategy for curbing the pandemic’s impact in Lesotho, she said.

The program addresses the medical, social and material needs of local women and informs pregnant women about the risk of transmission. This type of education has been minimal in the region until recently, especially in rural villages, Towle said.

Towle visited Lesotho for about six weeks last summer through the Anthropology department. She spent most of her time at TTL, located in Mokhotlong, a remote, mountainous region in Lesotho – but she also worked for two weeks in Maseru, the capital city, in the largest pediatric HIV/AIDS center in Lesotho.

The Undergraduate Re-search Opportunity Program, through the College of Arts and Letters, funded the trip with a grant for research on mother-to-child HIV transmission, Towle said.

Support for the foundation also came after it was featured in the fall edition of Notre Dame Magazine, considerably popularizing TTLF’s mission, she said. After the feature, many people contacted Towle and the foundation to find out how to organize fundraisers in their churches.

Challenges facing TTLF

The effort to stop the transmission of HIV/AIDS in Lesotho is a young one, Towle said.

The work at the foundation is still very “relational,” she added.

“We’re focusing on medical initiatives. We recently sent over 100 HIV test kits. There are materials we have hear that they don’t have access to in Lesotho,” she said.

Over the summer, TTLF sent an oxygen machine to TTL in Lesotho, along with other necessary medical equipment.

However, one of Towle’s main goals is local, as she struggles to raise awareness in Notre Dame and spark interest around the crisis in Lesotho.

“It’s definitely a crisis – people are dying – something like [TTL] is needed in the country,” she said.

Students such as Towle’s younger brother, freshman Brian Towle, however, have answered the call. He organized a fundraiser when he was in high school, raising $30,000 for the African relief movement.

But to attack successfully the complex issues surrounding the transmission of HIV/AIDS, TTFL needs more than money to cover all facets of the HIV pandemic, she said. The foundation is already donating all of its profits to Lesotho – but the prevalence of the virus will require more support.

“We’re starting at the end – children are already sick – and need to work to prevent more children from getting sick,” Towle said, explaining TTL’s efforts are not preventive actions but rather damage control.

In her campaign to bring students to the Lesotho relief projects, Towle also chairs the Academic Liaison Committee of the foundation, which helps to get Notre Dame students more involved. According to Towle, more students have been traveling to Lesotho and the foundation has “become a high profile organization on campus,” active in any event that may relate to the African crisis.

TTLF volunteers like Towle and her brother had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Paul Farmer at the 2006 Notre Dame Forum, entitled “The Global Health Crisis: Creating Solutions, Forging Change.”

Farmer’s healthcare delivery foundation began efforts to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS in Lesotho during 2006.

“This is a very young, a very life-changing, a very Notre Dame effort,” Towle said.

She encourages interested students to visit TTL’s website, www.touchingtinylives.org, to learn more about stopping the HIV/AIDS crisis in Lesotho.