Leaders of World Vision, the nonprofit Christian relief organization, felt something special was needed to get Americans involved in the fight against the African AIDS pandemic.
We wanted to get them to touch the issue, to have them feel it, touch it, and be able to experience the need in a different way, said Michael Yoder, the agency s director of experiential engagement.
Those goals led Mr. Yoder and a team of World Vision workers to create Step into Africa, a 3,000-square-foot traveling exhibit that is coming to the Toledo area over Labor Day weekend.
Visitors receive a pair of headphones and listen to the voices of real African children who lead them through a series of scenes from his or her home village, giving visitors a realistic view of the hardships that AIDS and HIV are causing.
Mr. Yoder said the groundwork for the virtual village was laid during a two-day brainstorming session in May, 2005.
The agency had been trying for years to get American Christians involved in helping Africans overcome the AIDS pandemic, he said. But as recently as five years ago, few were interested.
There was a stigma, and there was confusion on whether Christians had a moral imperative to be involved in this issue, Mr. Yoder said.
But because of numerous developments in the last few years, more U.S. churches and individuals are feeling compelled to do something to help stem the growing health crisis.
And there is much to be done, based on AIDS and HIV statistics such as these:
More than 15 million people in sub-Saharan Africa have lost one or both parents to AIDS.
40 million people around the world are now living with HIV or AIDS.
25 million people have already died of AIDS.
More than 2 million African children under age 15 are living with HIV. In most cases, these children were either born with HIV or were infected through breastfeeding.
World Vision, based in the Seattle suburb of Federal Way, Wash., runs relief programs in more than 100 countries, including AIDS prevention and care projects in 60 nations.
Step into Africa aims to bring the crisis to people who will never actually visit an African village, by taking them on a virtual tour to see the living conditions of four real African children Kombo, a Kenyan boy; Babirye, a girl in Uganda whose father died from AIDS; Emmanuel, an AIDS orphan in Uganda, and Mathabo, an abandoned girl in Lesotho.
The children s voices take visitors on the tours that last about 30 minutes.
Admission is free and the host church, CedarCreek, is looking for volunteers from throughout the area to help set up, take down, and staff the exhibition while it is on display.
The Rev. Lee Powell, senior pastor at CedarCreek, said that although the exhibit will be set up at the Perrysburg church, this is not a CedarCreek event. This is a community event.
More than 130 people from CedarCreek already have volunteered but Mr. Powell said a total of 300 volunteers are needed.
Mr. Yoder said World Vision is seeking to make the traveling Step into Africa exhibit pay for itself by inspiring people to donate.
We are hoping that 5 to 10 percent of all visitors will make a decision to sponsor children [at $35 a month], he said. The American people are very, very generous. World Vision just has to find a way to break through, to give them a chance to step aside from their busy lives and dive deeply into this experience even for 20 or 30 minutes.
One of the more emotional moments during the visits is a stop at the prayer wall, he said, where visitors can write a note after finishing the tour.
It s a beautiful, beautiful space and the notes are heartfelt, Mr. Yoder said.
A second Step into Africa exhibit is scheduled to begin touring the West Coast in January.
The Step into Africa exhibit is free but timed tickets must be reserved online at www.cedarcreek.tv. Volunteers also can sign up at the same Web site. The exhibit will be open from 7 to 11 p.m. Aug. 30; 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Aug. 31 and Sept. 1; 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sept. 2, and 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sept. 3 at the church, 29129 Lime City Rd., Perrysburg.