Andrew Koleros was assigned as an HIV/AIDS Technical Advisor for CARE International as part of his Masters International Peace Corps service in Maroua, Cameroon, when he was approached by a few HIV-positive youth in February 2005. “They were interested in starting their own group of young people committed to health promotion, and I realized through our conversations the need for a support group to address the needs of HIV-positive youth.”
Koleros helped the young people start their own support group called AJEPS, an African acronym for Young People Committed to Health Promotion. Immediately, he saw members’ spirits and confidence rise. Youth who were scared to speak at the first few meetings were soon conducting community education activities. The success of AJEPS to support and empower youth inspired Andrew and four other returned Peace Corps volunteers to extend the collaborations and establish Education Fights AIDS (EFA) International.
“I learned so much from my Tulane professors Dominique Meekers and Anastasia Gage that came into play,” says Koleros. “I was able to help develop our support group into a holistic approach that addresses not only medical assistance, but also economic stability, psychosocial support, and leadership training.”
Four years after Koleros began directing the program, EFA co-founder and Cameroon native Alim Ousmanou was accepted to the U.S. State Department’s International Visitor’s Leadership Program to participate in a two-week tour and leadership training in the United States, including a stop at Tulane. “While there, he met Dr. Meekers, and that just blew me away. I thought, ‘We have really come full circle.’”
In 2008, Koleros accepted a position in monitoring and evaluation for the National AIDS Control Commission of Rwanda, but he still serves as treasurer of the EFA Board of Directors and head of the strategy group for the monitoring and evaluation program. “Handling both jobs is super stressful, and I usually feel guilty, because I still don’t feel like I’m doing enough. The need is huge,” says Koleros.
Located in the provincial capital Maroua, EFA provides peer education, trainings, and opportunities for economic collaboration through a network of youth-led health promotion associations. The associations are often able to approach local, religious, and traditional authorities to raise awareness about the specific situations of HIV-positive youth in the community and propose strategies on how best to support them.
“We want our youth network to help members become responsible adults who can reduce stigma in their communities and work towards social change,” says Koleros. “We believe community interventions at the grassroots level are integral to the fight against HIV/AIDS.”
Over the past six years, EFA International has grown to implement activities in several other regions in Africa and the U.S. The organization provides technical and financial assistance to the Child Support Center empowerment program in Kigali, Rwanda, dedicated to providing a safe and community-oriented environment for orphans and vulnerable children. EFA also participates in cultural exchange and service-learning programs designed for Americans interested in learning more about HIV in Africa and strategies to mitigate its impact.
– Laura Horne