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Rebekah Gilbert reaches out to AIDS orphans at home, abroad

by: Chase Allgood, AIDS activist Rebekah Gilbert, 11, strolls on the family property in Cherry Grove.

Rebekah Gilbert's flaxen hair is straight and silky, and her hands move when she talks. She speaks passionately about topics that don't typically cross the minds of American youth - particularly 11-year-old girls.

Today she's talking about her 'long-distance sister,' Nasuna Shamin. Nasuna's coal-colored skin and bald head, a result of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, stand in stark contrast to the Gaston Elementary School sixth-grader's appearance.

Yet they're sisters nonetheless.

Rebekah, who lives in Cherry Grove, quit softball, basketball and piano lessons this year to help her family save money for a trip to Uganda, a trip where she plans to meet Nasuna, age 10.

Nasuna is in the second grade at a community school in Rwenjiri, Uganda. Nasuna's parents both died of AIDS, so she lives with her grandparents. She is sponsored through the International Children's Network.

Long-distance pen pals

The two girls have been writing to each other since last fall, when fellow Dilley Bible Church regular Stephanie Bishop returned from her well-digging trip to Uganda. Bishop brought with her the stories of a number of children in the community where she worked.

The Gilbert family chose Nasuna.

'She almost feels like a long-distance sister,' said Rebekah, who is faithful in sending hand-drawn pictures, homemade jewelry and photos to Nasuna.

Rebekah started the art exchange by adding a flower and smiley face punctuation to her first letter, and now Nasuna regularly sends her drawings with her letters. Rebekah has even sent Nasuna a finger-knit necklace in the colors of the Ugandan flag: red, yellow and black.

'I'm surprised at how connected I feel to her,' said Charlotte Gilbert, Rebekah's mother.

Nasuna writes back fairly quickly by international mail standards. She always tells about her grades, and the ICN includes photos of Nasuna in her uniform. 'I'm going to be smart,' she promises.

'It's fun to hear her responses,' said Rebekah. 'It's fun to see her smiles.'

The ICN also includes a list of additional needs that can be added on each month. So far, the Gilberts have given Nasuna a mattress and some rice and sugar. In February, Nasuna started her school year in P2, and the Gilberts bought her a new uniform.

They'd really like to get her a goat someday, since they have six goats of their own, which they use to control the brush on their rural property.

Charlotte thought a photo of the goats on the family farm might be a fun way for Nasuna to see what their life looks like from the kitchen window.

Rebekah is just as curious about what the view in Uganda is like. 'What do they do?' she asked. 'They don't have TV. Do they farm all day long?'

Farming seems to be one of the only other things Nasuna writes about besides school; she gave an account of the bean harvest in November.

Traveling with her church

Rebekah will find out more about Nasuna's daily life next summer when she travels overseas for the first time. She is a part of a team of 25 from Dilley Bible Church that's been raising money for a trip to Uganda in August. The team decided to split up and do two trips when they didn't reach their goal of $15,000 by May 1.

Rebekah is disappointed that her group must wait a year, but hasn't given up. 'When you want to go somewhere it's really hard,' she said. 'You have to pray and read your Bible. You have to be committed to it.'

Rebekah already added $500 to her trip by sacrificing her extracurricular activities this year, although her mother thinks she'll probably pick just one sport for next year.

In the meantime, her newfound interest in Africa has helped her to encounter poverty in the U.S. Her older sister, Stacy Sperl, agreed to give her $75 a month for her trip with the condition that she find somewhere to volunteer at home.

She chose to go to Portland with a homeless ministry from her church.

'I met one lady who only likes macaroni and cheese,' she said. 'The next time we go back, I'm going to bring her macaroni and cheese.'

Her heart is big enough to take in both worlds. Last fall, the Gilberts added another child to their fold as well.

Fifteen-year-old Ruth is in the sixth grade and lives in Jinja, Uganda.

She is supported through the AIDS Orphans Education Trust, an indigenous organization that Dilley Bible Church will be working with in August.

Ruth hasn't responded yet to their sponsorship.

'Look how sad she is,' says Rebekah. Ruth's mother died of AIDS when she was 8, and she now lives with her uncle.

For Rebekah, it's almost too much to bear.

'If I were her, I wouldn't have hope. I want to make a difference in her life,' she says. 'I just want Nasuna and Ruth to know they're not alone.'




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