“It was 2004 and I was working in a war-torn country...pregnant. I briefly considered the prospects of having the baby there. But then the phone rang.”
Since 2005, Tanya Weaver has been the Executive Director of the American Foundation for Children with AIDS (AFC AIDS), a small organization making a big impact in the Sub-Saharan Africa region, particularly Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The organization organically grew from the realization that children with AIDS in Africa had been underserved and marginalized—an overwhelming 97% of those serviced died within a couple years. AFC AIDS’ mission was to decrease that number, and looked to Tanya to do so. And do so she did. Over the past 11 years the organization has flipped that number upside-down; now 97% of the children serviced survive and continue to build their lives well past the age of 18 when they are no longer in the organization’s care.
When I first sat down with Tanya, her passion for the organization’s mission and her zest for life were obvious. She had grown up abroad and had taken in so much of the world. While she did not dip into too many details about her travels, it was clear that she had experienced the world in ways many of us could only hope to do during our two weeks’ vacation, and those experiences have helped fuel and guide her while at AFC AIDS. It was also apparent how much she wants to help the children who suffer from a disease that is so often involuntarily inflicted upon them at birth. She talked at length of the many programs that have evolved over the years to provide sustainable solutions in the areas where she works.
With her leadership, the organization has successfully adapted to meet the needs of the children beyond the initial mission of providing medicine. When Tanya found out that many of the children were unable to take their medicine because of lack of food, she created a food program. When the lack of opportunity and resources became evident, the organization adapted and now offers agricultural assistance to help villagers sustain their livelihoods. And when children were too old to be serviced by the organization, but it was evident that they could still use some guidance, a livelihoods program was developed to offer them livestock as an investment to be raised over the course of a few years.
Many of these solutions evolved because Tanya has been a willing listener to those she serves. Living in Pennsylvania while servicing places in Africa limits Tanya’s exposure to everyday life in these communities, and Tanya is the first one to admit that she may not know the answer to every question. As our nation builds with racial tension, it was refreshing to hear Tanya effortlessly express her desire to not be a “white savior” in Africa. She works with the children and villagers, not with an idealistic notion of knowing what is best for them. She empowers through accountability and agency, ultimately making the organization, its mission, and the people it serves better off in the long-run. Cycles of dependency are a far cry from AFC AIDS because Tanya’s hope to build trust and respect from her clients is more important that being right or taking an easy way out.
By the end of the conversation, it was clear to me that Tanya is a fighter. She has been fighting for the organization since she got that phone call, and takes every opportunity to do so. Her asking for donations does not come across as one of desperation, but of duty. She delivered her pitch, balancing that fine line of urgency, carefully avoiding any pushiness. While sitting there I wanted to sign up immediately to do something to help. Just listening to her speak about the organization and knowing that she is one of two employees and two volunteers doing all of this work was inspiring. Ultimately, what she achieves in helping the kids is every bit a reward for the amount of work she puts into the organization.
About the author
Autumn Anderson works for the PA Department of Community and Economic Development as an Economic Development Analyst in Harrisburg, PA. She is currently enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania Fels Institute of Government certificate program for Nonprofit Administration, and plans to pursue the Executive Masters in Public Administration program this upcoming fall. She is a graduate of Kenyon College where she majored in International Studies with a Chinese minor, played basketball all four years, and co-founded a student-run late-night food business. She is currently working on starting a t-shirt business to support other nonprofits rooted in compassion and working in the fields of environmental justice, public health, and animal sanctuaries, among other pressing issues.