Residents Living with HIV Learn Skills to Grow and Thrive in Dare to Care

Dare to Care is Mustard Seed Communities’ initiative to provide compassionate care to children and adolescents who are living with HIV in Jamaica and Zimbabwe. 

Established in 2000, the Dare to Care program operates to provide a safe home, access to education, consistent healthcare and medication, mentorship opportunities, and fellowship in an inclusive community for children and adolescents living with HIV. 

In Jamaica, three homes for individuals living with HIV operate under the Dare to Care program: Matthew 25:40, a home for 20 teenage boys; Martha’s House, a home for 25 children; and Dare to Care, a home for 15 teenage girls. In Zimbabwe, The Freedom Home and Generosity Home shelter over thirty children and adolescents who are living with HIV. 

“The work at Mustard Seed is second to none,” said Andre McFarlane, administrator of the Dare to Care program in Jamaica. “We are not doing what we do because it’s a job – we do it because we have a skill for it, but most of all because we have love for these residents.”

At its core, the Dare to Care program is inspired by Matthew 25:40: “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” In providing shelter, access to education, career counseling, therapy, and a community that embraces everyone, MSC hopes to embody this empowering spirit of love described in the Gospel of Matthew. 

HIV treatment in Jamaica is challenging, even in 2023. UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima stated, “There are barriers to overcome: these include addressing inequalities, eliminating stigma and discrimination, ending punitive laws which harm the AIDS response, and eliminating gender inequalities, including gender-based violence.” Mustard Seed Communities’ Dare to Care program extends its own efforts in this mission to care for vulnerable children living with HIV who have been abandoned.

Through Dare to Care, MSC offers children with HIV holistic support that addresses physical, emotional, spiritual, and social wellbeing.  Established with the firm belief that all persons are entitled to live worthy lives, Dare to Care has evolved from hospice care for children dying of AIDS to outreach that shelters, educates, and uplifts individuals with HIV so that they can live successful and independent lives. One of the ways we have been able to do that is through free antiretroviral drugs from the Global Fund and Lasco Pharmaceutical. We strive to provide worthwhile and sufficient care for children affected by HIV by consistently learning more about developing medical treatments that save and prolong lives.

Our spirit of inclusion is needed: the stigmatization of individuals with HIV remains a central issue. Children living with HIV can be mistreated and isolated from society: they are barred from schools if their status is known and may be disregarded by their communities and even by family. They are frequently left without a home because their parents have died from AIDS or they are abandoned by relatives who want no association with HIV. As a result, these children often suffer from developmental delays and psychological trauma.

In both Jamaica and Zimbabwe, the Dare to Care program emphasizes education and spirituality in addition to health and wellness. Many children in the program attend Little Angels Schools, MSC’s early childhood education centers for residents and children from surrounding communities in need. The residents attend schools in the program’s surrounding neighborhoods for further education, integrating them with their community and working against the negative stigma facing individuals with HIV.

Children in the Dare to Care program attend school with other MSC residents at Jerusalem!

As the residents of Dare to Care grow older, they become increasingly aware of the challenges associated with living with HIV. In response, Dare to Care provides counseling sessions and other therapeutic activities to assist with residents’ integration into the surrounding community. In partnership with LEAD Outreach Initiative, MSC also offers leadership training and mentor programs that set residents up for success in their careers.

MSC’s emphasis on respect and dignity is particularly empowering to the residents. “My brothers remind me that I’m strong to go on,” says Keemo Birthwright, a resident of Matthew 25:40. “I’m going through so much pain but still try to have a smile on my face.” Keemo considers his fellow residents family, and he now works in MSC’s offices with enthusiasm and a great sense of purpose.

Keemo is a friend and an inspiration to many members of the community.

The Dare to Care program relies on the support of donors who give to Mustard Seed Communities from all around the globe. 

In 2001, Cindy Stewart founded the Circle of Hands Foundation, a Connecticut-based 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to creating meaningful relationships with the residents of Dare to Care and raising funds to ensure the program’s future. The organization is run by passionate volunteers who organize a yearly gala, maintain connections with sponsors and residents, and host a family fun day for the residents in Jamaica. 

In their over 20 years of service on behalf of MSC, Circle of Hands has been instrumental in providing life-giving supplies and empowering services to residents affected by HIV, such as: critical antiretroviral medications (before these medications were readily available in Jamaica); food; educational tools; and life coaching. 

We caught up with Errol and Maxine Smith of West Hartford, CT to learn more about their impact on the Mustard Seed Communities’ Dare to Care program via the Circle of Hands Foundation. As board members since the organization’s inception, the couple has raised thousands of dollars, secured new sponsorships, volunteered in Jamaica at Dare to Care for two weeks each year, and even adopted a child from the program.

Circle of Hands Foundation raises money for Dare to Care at their annual gala.

Over the decades, the Smiths have witnessed Mustard Seed’s care save lives, challenge stigmas, transform outlooks, and inspire communities. “It’s remarkable what Mustard Seed has done over the years,” explains Maxine. “Knowing the stigma of caring for children with HIV, they continued to provide protection and safety for them. The caregivers have such a big heart — they really care for the children — they become family. It doesn’t feel like an institution …it feels like home.”

This belief in every individual’s right to live a full life drives MSC and its many generous supporters to join the cause of empowering children and adolescents with HIV. Not only does Dare to Care save and prolong lives, but it also enriches those lives with love and the skills they need to thrive.