Tanya Weaver is the director of the American Foundation for Children with AIDS (AFCA), since 2005 http://afcaids.org. In addition to directing AFCA’s day-to-day activities, Tanya frequently speaks about AFCA and AIDS to students, community organizations and religious organizations. In 2007, Tanya created and held the first Climb Up so Kids Can Grow Up, an international series of outdoor events that raises funds for AFCA. She has spent much of her life abroad involved in international development. Prior to joining AFCA, Tanya worked in Afghanistan as a Project Supervisor and later as Interim Country Director for Shelter for Life International, a global organization that provides assistance, building homes and other shelters for those in need. Previously, Tanya worked with Habitat for Humanity International in Romania, Portugal, Kyrgyzstan, Hungary and Russia.
Tanya has a Masters in Art Therapy from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She currently resides in Harrisburg, PA with her husband Eric, her daughter Julia and her son Aiden. Those who know her say that “Tanya is incredible genuine in everything that she needs and does.” When you talk with Tanya, her energy, passion, and enthusiasm bubble over.
Q: What do people need to know about the American Foundation for Children with AIDS?
TW: People need to know that while we are a small organization, we are doing amazing things for children who, for too long, haven’t had what they need. The American Foundation for Children with AIDS uses over 93 cents out of every dollar given to us directly on the kids, so we are a lean organization who is putting the children in the forefront of all we do. People need to know that we need their help. Without volunteers, advocates, donors, and encouragers, we can’t do what we do.
Q: The story of the American Foundation for Children with AIDS says that, “we didn’t give up when the going got tough.” Can you talk about how your mission has evolved? Your website says that you want your organization to be obsolete – that is, you want to not be needed any more – what would the world look like if AFCA wasn’t needed?
TW: Let me start at the end. If AFCA weren’t needed, it would mean that children affected and/or infected by AIDS would not be hungry, that they would have the medicine they need to survive and to thrive, that they would be able to provide for themselves through micro-enterprises, that they have the hope to become productive citizens of their communities and country. It would mean that babies and children who carry this virus would not lack for clean water, an education or access to medical care. And, it would mean that hospitals and clinics would have the good, clean, equipment they need to care for people who come to them for help. Lofty? Yes. Doable? Yes. How? It will take lots and lots of people to not only care, but to act on the belief that every child deserves a decent life and that every life is precious and beyond value.
When AFCA was first formed, we gave out medicine to children who couldn’t access it from anywhere else because neither they, nor their guardians, had the funds to pay for them. Then, 25 children died of hunger due to a drought in Kenya. And that same year, I held a dying, starving baby in my arms and I vowed that while I am part of AFCA, our children will not die due to hunger if we can do anything about it. So, we added the provision of nutritional support to children affected by drought or famine. Then came medical supplies and equipment to hospitals and clinics who care for the children in our programs.
Soon, we realized that giving things out is not necessarily the best way to help others. We sat and chatted with AIDS orphans and asked them what they needed, what they wanted. They unanimously said that they needed a way to earn a living and a way to get out of the cycle of poverty. They were grateful for the medicine and food, but they wanted to learn skills that would help them provide for themselves. This was exactly what we wanted to hear, so we started a small project with livestock and seeds. When we saw the success of this project, we grew it. And grew it. So, now, we have children who no longer need our donations of money or food because THEY CAN FEND FOR THEMSELVES. And this is a beautiful thing. This is what dreams are made of – both theirs and ours.
We’ve also realized that we need to bolster the programs we support so that they can continue even if AFCA has no more funding or support to give. So, we have started a pilot project in Kenya with greenhouses to see if a business can keep the clinic alive and can cover the costs AFCA usually covers (medical supplies, food, etc.). So far, it’s been successful and we are looking to expand this project.
Q: You have extensive international non-profit experience. What are some of the stories of your life? What have you seen that shaped who you are?
TW: When I was 6, my parents moved to Colombia, where they ran an orphanage. This single-handedly changed my life, for the better. I learned another language, I suddenly had 67 brothers and sisters with whom to share life, I learned about different foods and climate, and I saw compassion and love doled out daily, throughout the day. I saw what kindness to an orphan looked like. I observed countless counts of love towards myself and others. My life was changed and I didn’t even realize it because it was such a natural part of the ordinary. I witnessed firsthand parents who poured themselves out on behalf of children who’d been thrown away in garbage cans, in fields, on the streets, and in hospitals.
It is that experience that led me to go back overseas time and again, to get away from gross commercialism and consumerism by which we are surrounded. It is what keeps me going back – to find a balance in life and to find my way back to a simpler way to do and share life. I want my children to experience this and to know that people are people wherever we are and all deserve respect and dignity. I tell them stories of their grandparents and every time I do, I am reminded once again, of the power of selflessness and I am grateful to my parents all over again.
I have so many stories! A phone call might be required for that answer. 🙂
Q: How do you make time for yourself? What gives you balance?
TW: My own kids give me balance. I don’t want to spend my life helping other children while not having a relationship with my own kids. So, when they are home from school, my time is mostly theirs. I plan my trips around their schedules and work a lot while they sleep. I have learned to value any down time I get – a cup of coffee with friends, dinner with a girlfriend, date night with my husband, watching my children swim. I put my cell phone down and don’t answer emails or calls during those times. I cook from scratch and we eat dinner together, the four of us…this give us time to catch up while teaching the children that there is value to deliberate togetherness and to having part of our lives that are unhurried. It builds in us the feeling of gratitude for each other and for what we have.
Yet, I have to say that holding babies when I am in Africa and jumping rope with children balances me, too. It brings a peace to what I do, reminding me that this work has value and is important and that even though it is exhausting to fundraise and to plead for help, it is worth every minute of it when I see a healthy child who would have been dead without our help. I get to breathe deeply at those times, breathing in a little life as I hold him or her, knowing that a bit of balance has been restored in that corner of the world.
Q: What is something that the world should know?
TW: That together, we can do amazing things. Nothing we do should be measured by size or volume, but by hope and love. The life of a child in a Zimbabwean or Congolese village is just as important as the life of my child here in my home.