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Here’s a good holiday present for the whole family – saving a life

December 24, 2004
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us
Enterprise staff writer
Photos by Koen Van Rompay

Fast Facts:
Koen Van Rompay
Sahaya International, Inc.
2949 Portage Bay Ave., Apt.195 
Davis, CA 95616
Phone: (530) 756-9074
Koen Van Rompay will give a talk on sponsoring AIDS orphans in India and Africa on Saturday, Feb. 12, 2005 from 1 to 2 p.m. at the St. James Memorial Center, 1275 B St.

AIDS researcher Koen Van Rompay, 39, of UC Davis returned from his annual trip to India earlier this month with hundreds of photos, many of them pictures of children sponsored by Davis residents.

One of his favorite photos is of 7-year-old Monisha in her pajamas.

Van Rompay has visited India almost every year since 1997. On his first trip to India he was shocked, as so many Westerners are, at the poverty and illness he saw. But unlike most other people, he decided to do something about it.

“I felt I had to do something,” he said. “I could go back to Davis and just close my eyes and try to forget all the poverty and all those poor children, or I could really try to stand up and be a voice for them.”

Koen Van Rompay and Adele MoussasHe formed a non-profit organization, Sahaya International, as a way to funnel money to local non-governmental organizations in Southern India. Sahaya is Sandskrit for “help.” You can read all about it at www.sahaya.org

Most of his projects are located Southern India, south of Chennai (formerly the city of Madras). He began by helping an Indian friend and social worker, Durai Selvam, director of a small self-help program in Southern India, sell hand-embroidered greeting cards.

Van Rompay says Sahaya International, headquartered out of his apartment on Portage Bay Avenue in Davis, has been able to raise $10,000 to $20,000 a year mainly by selling the cards.

When the cards were offered for sale at the St. James Holiday Bazaar in November, more than $600 was raised.

Adele collecting questions from high school students at an HIV awareness program.One day, as he was selling cards at the Davis Farmers’ Market, he met a doctor named Adele Moussas who became intrigued in his program. This year, Moussas traveled to India with Van Rompay where they gave lectures at schools about AIDS and AIDS prevention.

When Moussas returned to Davis, she was very emotional about her life-changing visit and the children she met.

“They have so little to give materially that they give what they have and that’s love,” she said. “It’s the last thing we give here and the first thing they give there.”

Van Rompay and Moussas went to Selvam’s village of Vilandai next to the city of Andimadam six hours south of Chennai in the state of Tamil Nadu.

Moussas says she’s counting down the days until she can return to India and Andimadam

Van Rompay’s success with the greeting card project and his visits to India led to involvement with an orphan AIDS project. It started slowly with one or two people but now nearly a dozen people in Davis are sending $30 a month to Selvam’s village to feed and educate an AIDS orphan, the poorest of the poor.

Dr Adele Moussas with her sponsoree, Suriah, and his sister. The sponsors include Van Rompay’s colleagues and friends and others who have heard about his work such as Guy and Akemi Turner who met Van Rompay through the St. James Gospel Justice Committee.

The Turners are sponsoring 7-year-old Monisha who lives with her grandparents. Her father died of AIDS and her mother committed suicide after finding out she was infected. The Turners have $30 a month automatically withdrawn from their checking account for Monisha.

When the Turners looked for a little dress to send Monisha with Van Rompay and Moussas, they couldn’t find anything suitable. They ended up sending her a pair of pajamas.

“She loved the pajamas,” said Van Rompay. “She wore them outside – she wouldn’t take them off.”

Davis resident Lee Pilon was the first member of the Gospel Justice Committee to sponsor a child through Sayaha International and Selvam’s READ project. But she wanted her grandchildren to get involved, too, so each month Will, Anna Marie, Teresa and Andrew contribute part of their allowance for the health and well-being of Jency Elizabeth, 4, also in Selvam’s village.

“This gives us the joy and pleasure of helping someone who would not have much of a chance,” said Pilon.

Adele and Koen passing out candy and pencils at a Mother Theresa school.If the idea of sponsoring an AIDS orphan sounds like something you’d like to do, you’ll have the opportunity soon. Van Rompay returned to Davis with a list of 17 of the most needy children in the village. There’s Ramkkumar, 6, whose father died of AIDS when he was 2. He lives with his HIV-positive mother who is not able to work and relies on charity. There’s Vinitha, 9, whose parents both died of AIDS. She lives with her grandparents who support five grandchildren on laborers’ wages.

A 9-year-old boy named Vignesh was adopted by an anonymous Davis resident. With a monthly contribution of $30 going to his grandparents, Vignesh, who is academically gifted, will be able to continue going to school instead of going to work. His grandfather sells tea out of a stall, which provides an income sufficient to keep them together, but does not provide for Vignesh’s schooling.

An informal meeting featuring a talk by Van Rompay on how residents can sponsor AIDS orphans in India or Africa will be held on Saturday, Feb. 12, from 1 to 2 p.m. at the St. James Memorial Center, 1275 B St.

However, if someone would like to donate toward something that benefits many children, there are many opportunities. A swing and slide for a school playground would cost $360. A large TV would cost $200. One of the schools has about 40 students in five grades in two small classrooms. The government is willing to donate land for a new school, but $11,500 is needed to construct a building.

“The school can be named after the donor,” said Van Rompay.

Guy Turner urges Davis residents with any interest in sponsoring a child or a school to come to the Feb. 12 meeting.

“Davis people really can make a difference,” he said. As he likes to put it: “One by one we become an army.”

The army that Van Rompay is recruiting to help fight AIDS and support its casualties was helped considerably recently by a huge donation from the Elton John AIDS Foundation headquartered in London.

When Van Rompay came home, he found out that Sahaya International had been awarded a $100,000 grant, by far the biggest that it has ever received.

“We will train women leaders throughout the region to have very good AIDS awareness,” said Van Rompay. “And we will train barbers to speak to men.”

The money will be used not only to spread correct information about AIDS and dispel myths, but to identify those already infected to provide care and support.

Van Rompay can be reached at Sahaya International, 2949 Portage Bay Ave., Apt. 195 Davis, CA 95616. Phone (evenings): 530-756-9074 or reach him by email at kkvanrompay@ucdavis.edu The Sahaya International web page is www.sahaya.org

-- Reach Elisabeth Sherwin at gizmo@dcn.org

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