Nathaniel Dunigan went to Uganda as an HIV prevention educator, but was so touched by the number of children with AIDS that he returned to set up an orphanage.
By JESSIE VANDERSON
Special to the Citizen
Nathaniel Dunigan went to Africa for a month last year on a goodwill mission, and a chance visit to a small village in Uganda changed the course of his life.
The University of Arizona graduate sold all his possession and moved back to Africa to run an orphanage for children afflicted with HIV and AIDS.
“Uganda has 1.9 million orphaned children. That is more than any other country in the world today,” said Dunigan, who is back in America for two weeks to raise funds for the foundation he formed: AIDSchild.
Just six weeks into starting the orphanage, he lost his first orphan, Milo, a 4-year-old boy, who died in Dunigan’s arms.
The severe AIDS situation in Africa accounts for most of those orphans and the disease has, in less than 20 years, surpassed anything before caused by disease on the continent.
“People with AIDS are shunned,” said Dunigan. “Ten percent of the orphans in Uganda are under 10 years of age.”
Dunigan, a former Tucson representative for the Fife Symington administration, is in the hunt for basic things to make the orphanage more effective. Money for an all-terrain vehicle to transport sick children would be a big help.
His orphanage is near the town of Musaka and has a full-time staff of eight, including a full-time nurse and a doctor on call. The children at the orphanage get food, clothing and regular medical and AIDS treatment.
With the orphanage still in the start-up stages, Dunigan has kept the number of orphans he helps at 10.
“We have a clinic on site and do everything on site except for lab work,” said Dunigan, who serves as the foundation’s director. “The current site has a projected maximum of 55 children.”
Dunigan, 27, first went to Uganda last year as an HIV prevention educator with a nondenominational religious organization from northern Arizona.
“It was a small project, and I went for one month,” said Dunigan. “I felt like I did something good.”
But a chance visit to an isolated Ugandan village with an interpreter changed Dunigan’s course in life. During the visit, he met a small Ugandan boy named Simon, who was seriously ill and dying from AIDS, which had already claimed the lives of the youth’s mother and his siblings.
The boy’s father, emotionally strained by the loss of his family, asked Dunigan if he could help his son. This being the young American’s first encounter with the ravages of AIDS, he could do nothing.
The situation profoundly touched his heart.
“It changed my life. I came home, but I wanted to stay in Africa,” he said. “Then I made plans to go back for three more months.”
Dunigan moved quickly. He sold his house in Arizona, and invested everything he had into starting his foundation.
“My parents were like missionaries. I grew up in that kind of environment,” said Dunigan of his decision to return to Africa. “My parents really tried to teach me to help others. I had that very much in my mind.”
Once back in Uganda, Dunigan encountered cultural and social barriers in getting his orphanage up and running.
“The people were suspicious of me at first,” said Dunigan. “Many thought I had AIDS. I don’t. Local officials said, ‘Why do you want to waste your time and money trying to help these children. They are going to die anyway.’ ”
Dunigan, who spent much of his youth on the Navajo Indian Reservation in northern Arizona, persevered. He took over an abandoned 7-acre farm site, put in weeks of sweat-equity in preparing the facility, and opened the orphanage’s doors six months ago.
“I was motivated to make a difference,” said Dunigan. “I am very much ahead of schedule, but I still could use some help.”
You can make tax-deductible donations to AIDSchild by sending a check to: AIDSchild, P.O. Box 450, Rimrock, Ariz. 86335, by calling (520) 567-5864, or by a credit card through the group’s website at:
PHOTO CREDIT: Photos by XAVIER GALLEGOS/Tucson Citizen
CUTLINE: University of Arizona grad Nathaniel Dunigan (top) holds a photo of some of the Ugandan orphans he is trying to help and holds (left) some homemade artifacts.
PHOTO CREDIT: Photo courtesy of AIDSchild
The orphanage isn’t fancy inside (right), but it is functional.