At age 70+, AIDS and HIV activist Marion Bunch takes on the disease that took her son’s life in Africa and beyond.
When Marion Bunch says she’s “just a mom,” you might just believe her, watching her move among the crowd of women and children at this community health fair-like gathering, kissing a chubby baby cheek here and exchanging a mischievous smile with a toddler there.
But Marion’s no ordinary mom—and this is no run-of-the-mill health fair, either.
A tireless negotiator and strategic consensus builder with a never-surrender approach to projects she’s passionate about, the 70-something AIDS and HIV prevention advocate is the force behind Rotary Family Health Days. This effort, supported by Rotary International, brought crucial health services to hundreds of thousands of people over three days in May at 368 sites in three African countries, half a world away from Marion’s Atlanta-area home.
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In just 72 hours, throughout the countries of South Africa, Uganda and Nigeria, mothers toting infants and toddlers in improvised slings on their backs, teens in well-worn school uniforms, and other residents of makeshift, impoverished townships and slums converged on community centers and other sites for HIV testing, polio drops, measles vaccines, diabetes screening and other health services. In all, 275,000 Africans were tested, treated, touched by Marion’s mission to stop the spread of AIDS in the areas of the world that are most vulnerable to the disease.
That sense of mission was borne out of Marion’s grief at losing her son, Jerry, to AIDS in 1994. “He was just a good kid,” she says. “He was a friend to so many different people. He had insecurities because he was gay, but he was just a regular kid.”
The Bunch family was faced with AIDS early on in the American epidemic, when misconceptions, stigma and outright bias were layered atop grueling treatments and bleak prognoses. “That was before the anti-retroviral drugs were discovered, so we knew all along when he was ill that it was ultimately going to be a death sentence,” Marion says. “I felt quite lonely not being able to discuss Jerry’s illness with anyone outside my family. I, like a lot of people, lost friends over the disease.”
After Jerry’s death, Marion retreated into her grief. “You never expect to lose a child, and then when you do, you want to just go into a hole,” she says.
One bright spot, though, was Marion’s growing involvement in the local Rotary chapter, which she first saw as an opportunity to make business connections. Little did she know that the international humanitarian volunteer organization with the motto “Service Above Self” would provide her a pathway to healing and, in effect, change the course of her life. At a Rotary meeting in 1997, glancing over the club bulletin before the day’s program began, Marion noticed an announcement that the president of Rotary International had signed a joint statement on AIDS with the United Nations. “I felt a tap on the shoulder right then, and a voice said to me, ‘Mom get up and get going. You haven’t done anything, and it’s been three years.’ It was Jerry. And he sounded aggravated,” she says with a laugh.
And get going she did. Using the skills she honed as an organizational consultant for large corporations like Hewlett Packard, Marion persuaded her Rotary chapter to partner with an Atlanta-area HIV/AIDS organization to create an education program for Georgia middle schools. Since its conception in 1998, more than 450,000 students have participated, learning the facts about testing, transmission and treatment.
Despite her self-admitted lack of knowledge about public health, fundraising and community organizing, “I really kind of felt as though the wind was at my back,” Marion says. “It really was a God-driven moment—I felt uniquely pushed.”
When a fellow Rotarian invited her on a mission trip to Kenya in 2001, Marion quickly realized the depth of the need in Africa, where 20 million orphans in Kenya alone have lost their parents to AIDS. “They have little to eat, they are often shunned by their community, and they drop out of school because they don’t have the funds to pay the school fees or get uniforms.” This—coupled with misconceptions about the disease (for instance, that having unprotected sex with a virgin can cure an infected man)—perpetuates the cycle of poverty, illness and destitution in these communities.
That trip and the connections she made there led Marion in 2003 to create a plan to assist orphans and vulnerable children in six African countries with healthcare, education and other support services. Through the action group she founded, Rotarians for Family Health & AIDS Prevention (RFHA), Marion galvanized Rotary volunteers, the Coca Cola Africa Foundation, non-governmental organizations and the Emory University School of Public Health, to make an impact on the lives of 122,000 children over five years.
In the process, the Evanston, Ill., native found herself connecting with government officials, corporate bigwigs and health experts at the highest levels. “I was afraid half the time about what people would ask me and how I would respond,” she says. But the “kick” she received from Jerry and her tenacity—lovingly described by her husband, Austin, as “bulldog-like”—kept her going.
It was in the office of a then-district governor of Uganda in 2010 that the idea for Rotary Family Health Days was born. Building on the partnership model that had proven so successful in the Kenyan project, Marion worked with the government, corporate sponsors, African organizations and Rotary volunteers to provide HIV testing and counseling, as well as other necessary health services to over 38,000 Ugandans in a single day at several sites around the country. “We knew we had a winner,” she says. “And we knew we could replicate it.”
The success of the 2013 program in South Africa, Uganda and Nigeria is proof. A mere two months after the May event, Marion was on the road again—she estimates she’s traveled to Africa more than 40 times since that first trip 12 years ago—organizing for 2014, with the aim of expanding to at least four additional countries on the continent. She’s setting her sights on India for a pilot program in 2015.
Despite the juggling act involved in managing a project of this scope (Marion “retired” in 2008 from her business to work with RIFA full-time), she never loses sight of why she became involved in the first place: Jerry. “He comes around every once in a while and lets me know, ‘This is cool, Mom. This is really great.’”
Volunteering helped her process and move beyond the devastation of losing her “boy-child.” “I never dreamed I would do anything this big,” Marion says. “But the size of what you accomplish doesn’t matter. You just have to take one step, and that may be all you do. But it could be that a bunch of mini steps evolve into something big.”
While Marion seems completely at ease among heads of state (she shared a podium with the South African First Lady at the kickoff of this year’s event) and clearly thrives on uniting people and organizations around the goal of eradicating the disease that took her son, what she loves most is interacting with the African children. “That’s the most fun part—it’s not the speeches, it’s the kids.” Just what you’d expect from someone who is, as she says, “just a mom.”
Want to help? Visit rfha.org.