Spending time with 50-plus kids on a hot Saturday afternoon making vision boards is a great way to imagine what life can be. With the swirling, consistent chatter of teenagers and middle schoolers engaged in what it means to plan, comes a particular satisfaction in building ideas into actions. It is in the asking, discussing and banter where dreams come alive. Set a goal – set steps to reach them. This is the idea behind a vision board – a creative, artistic construction to reflect ideas, hopes and dreams.

India in March is hot. By 9:00 am it is already 88 degrees, with a hot sun baking everything in its path to a dull, dark brown as the day turns to dusk. Hours are filled with writing, creating and lots of scissors cutting out words, pictures and phrases from magazines representing the hopes and possibilities of 56 kids. With the fans on high to push the heat away, small cutout words are flying through the air like confetti as laughter fills the room. What a glorious way to spend a Saturday with a large group of teenagers and adolescents. As usual, I wonder who is teaching whom what.

I have been nurturing these relationships for more than 10 years now and it never – and I mean never – ceases to thrill and amaze me what a small measure of attention and support can do for a child. The teenage years can be a landmine of do’s and don’ts, a worrisome journey through the absurd arena of clicks, groups and the need to fit in. For our kids, that journey is filled with a stigma that would level most adults in any social setting. Just recently, our kids were preparing to read aloud in front of a group and the adult leading the exercise introduced our kids as, “the HIV kids (words fail me).” As the words came out, every person sitting next to one of our kids physically moved away from them. I cannot imagine what that would feel like if it happened once. For our kids, this is a constant reality.

Pushing back on oppression and stigma is hard work that takes diligence in the face of heart wrenching realities in a world where they are not wanted or accepted. We cannot accept defeat, because if we do, we have failed in our mission – to care for and educate every child we serve so they can live a stable, happy, adult life.

Our Vision Board experiment is one example of how we try to reinforce what we truly believe and repeatedly say – anything is possible with hard work and dedication. We sometimes must adjust to realities beyond our control, but that cannot be the end of the story.

Our work is to bring up our kids to be just like any other child – believe in yourself and try your best. The fact they are HIV-positive is hands down the least most interesting thing about any of them. Our job is to make sure each one grows to see them the way we do, a group of smart, funny, rowdy, eager children who want to grow up, get a job, maybe get married and live a simple, happy life. That way, no matter where they find themselves or what happens, this belief in who they are and what they are capable of will help them achieve their dreams.

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