Ten years ago, HIV-positive children in Botswana were not expected to reach, much less survive, adolescence. With the opening of the Botswana-Baylor Children's Clinical Centre of Excellence in 2003 and new funding from private and public sources, these children were given access to life-saving therapies and their life expectancy dramatically changed – for the better.

Today, there is an abundance of HIV-positive adolescents in Botswana who must learn how to manage their chronic illness and transition into adulthood.

The Botswana-Baylor Children's Clinical Centre of Excellence Teen Club was established shortly after the Botswana children's center opened to help them do just that.

"We started basically out of a computer lab in the children's center," said Ed Pettitt, senior project coordinator for the Baylor College of Medicine International Pediatric AIDS Initiative at Texas Children's Hospital. "The program has grown so much over the last 10 years that we are running out of physical space to have our activities."

A planned renovation will help address this need.

BIPAI Teen Club

The Teen Club is a place for HIV-positive adolescents to gather for health and life skills education and receive psychosocial support.

"For a young person with a chronic illness, one of the hardest things is adhering to their medication," said Pettitt. "With HIV/AIDS, this is three pills twice a day. They may feel fine but not taking the pills can make them very sick and potentially resistant to treatment."

Groups led by teen mentors

The peer support groups are led by mentors, many of who are older teens and young adults who have gone through Teen Club themselves. "We have a couple that are now in college who serve as really good role models for the children."

One mentor has helped to start a cell phone text messaging system to help teens remember to take their pills.

Members of the Teen Club in Botswana meet once a month with an average of over 200 teens in attendance from the capital city and outlying villages. "We talk about health, adherence and disclosure issues but also do recreational activities like painting and playing sports."

Peer acceptance

Being around other teens with HIV/AIDS is one of the biggest benefits of the club, Pettitt said.

"In the beginning, some of these children are very afraid of their HIV status. The live closeted lives, do not play sports at school and they are afraid of others finding out," said Pettitt. "Teen Club allows them to come to a place where others are like them. It is very open and therapeutic."

In 2010, the BIPAI teen club programs were cited in a UNICEF report as a best practice for providing the extra social support HIV-infected adolescents need. There are additional Teen Clubs throughout the BIPAI network in Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Swaziland and Lesotho, some of Africa's hardest hit regions for HIV/AIDS.

New space for Teen Club

In 2009, BIPAI purchased residential plots and houses across the street from the clinical center to renovate and construct a new center solely for their Teen Club program and adolescent services.

"The teens really want their own space outside of the clinic. They are growing up and need help with career planning and taking the next steps into adulthood," said Pettitt.

First Lady Michelle Obama even had a hand in preparing the plot for renovations during an official trip to Africa in June 2011. The trip promoted youth leadership, education, health and wellness, with special emphasis on AIDS prevention. Mrs. Obama, along with Teen Club members, helped paint a mural that will be one of the highlights of the newly designed center.

"We consider this our 'official groundbreaking' ceremony for the center," said Pettitt.

There are several small houses on the land that will be renovated. The existing mural will be part of a large wall that surrounds the center.

Funding will be a critical need for the center to be completed. The Teen Club will be organizing a series of fundraisers, including an art show held in Houston that showcases paintings created by adolescents living with HIV in Botswana.

The Building Brighter Futures Art Show will be held Thursday, May 17, from 6-8 p.m. at the Jack Meier Gallery, 2310 Bissonnet St., 77005.

For more information or to donate to the project, contact Edward Pettitt at epettitt@bcm.edu or 832-822-1315.