Finding homes and hope for HIV-positive children

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Margaret Fleming is an old hand at adoption. A mother of 10, she's adopted seven children and runs Adoption Link, an Oak Park agency that specializes in placing African-American babies?#34;but what she saw in Vietnam when she adopted Lien, now 4, changed her life.

Lien was HIV-positive, living in an orphanage in Ho Chi Minh City. "It was the most powerful thing in the world, to be in that orphanage," Fleming recalls. The HIV-positive babies were all on the top floor, "incredibly hot, with the sun shining into their beds. They just rocked back and forth in these clean cribs. No toys, no books, no music, no one talking to them. They all had HIV on the backs of their T-shirts. Branded."

Lien was lucky. By the time she came home to Oak Park at age 18 months, she had "seroconverted," which means she's no longer HIV-positive. (Tests used in developing countries can't make the distinction between the mother's antibodies and the virus itself until children are about 18 months old). And Vietnam since has built a new facility for HIV-positive kids, where they're getting meds and better care.

But Fleming came home believing "someone has to do something," so she founded Chances By Choice, an all volunteer, not-for-profit organization based in Oak Park, "to assist HIV-positive, internationally-born children through adoption, education and financial assistance," she says.

Fleming will be hosting a two-part presentation at the Oak Park Public Library, 834 Lake St., tonight and on Feb. 16 to introduce the mission of Chances By Choice. Not an adoption agency, the organization works to attract potential adoptive families, educate them about HIV, match them with source agencies in Africa, Asia, Russia, Central and South America, and "hand-hold them" through the process, explains Fleming.

Started just a year and a half ago, Chances By Choice has assisted in the placement of six children. Although adoptive families live across the country, two are here in Oak Park.

Fleming restricted her mission to internationally-born kids because in the United States, medicine is available to keep most babies from being born with HIV. But as a result of her work, Fleming came across an infant in Chicago who was HIV-positive. Luca, 5 months, is now her youngest son. Although 75 to 80 percent of all babies who test positive at birth seroconvert, Luca appears to actually have the virus.

Fleming says Chances By Choice is averaging a call a day from interested families. "The two most common questions people ask are, 'How can I parent a child who might die?' and 'How can I expose my family to this serious illness?'" she says.

The answer to the first is that "children don't die, except for the rare few who don't respond to medicine. They can live relatively long and happy lives now. This is more like a chronic illness that requires lots of diligence, like diabetes," explains Fleming. Not that it's easy?#34;meds must be given religiously, two to three times a day, forever.

And there's little need to fear exposure. AIDS is a very fragile virus that dies when it hits the air. It's only necessary to take precautions with blood. Luca, in fact, slobbers and sneezes over parishioners at Pilgrim Church, where Fleming is a member. "He's everyone's darling. He's the church's baby," she says.

The program at the library tonight is at 7:30 p.m. and will include a couple speaking about their adoption of an HIV-positive boy from Russia. For more information about Chances By Choice, call 524-4673, see www.chancesbychoice.org or e-mail info@chancesbychoice.org.

 

?#34;Laura Stuart

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