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In 2002, a young woman named Anne wandered into a medical clinic in Mombasa, Kenya, and made a brave stand. Recently widowed and HIV-positive, she refused to leave the clinic until she had the much-needed antiretroviral drugs they could provide—not for her, but for her 3-year-old son, Brine, who was suffering from the disease as well. In a remarkable coincidence, Anne’s desperate cry for help was heard half a world away in Los Angeles by the clinic’s founder, Leigh Blake, who was on the phone checking up on the clinic at that exact time.
Blake knew that helping Anne and Brine was not only the right thing to do; it was something she must do. Having a son of her own around Brine’s age, Blake felt an immediate connection to Anne’s circumstance. “I said to myself that what Anne was doing is what I would do. In fact, who would I kill to get those drugs for my child? I said, ‘Tell Anne to go home, I’m going to pay for those drugs for her,’ ” Blake says of the monumental moment.
Blake did get the drugs to Anne and Brine, and six months later the boy whose arms had been skinny as sticks when he came into the clinic now looked like a completely different child. In fact today, Brine is active and living with his mother in Mombasa.
But the story doesn’t end there. The connection between two mothers launched what has become one of the most successful campaigns to help children living with AIDS and HIV—Keep a Child Alive. The nonprofit organization is dedicated to providing life-saving treatment, care, nutrition, support services and love to children and families affected by HIV/AIDS in Africa and India.
“The beauty of that story with Anne was that friends of mine started to pay for other children, and pretty soon all of the children in that clinic were on antiretrovirals paid for by someone in America. And I just thought to myself, ‘This is what I must do,’ ” Blake says. “The only people who were getting these drugs in Africa, or anywhere at that time, were people who could afford them. In the U.S., people who were covered by insurance could get them, or in the U.K., people could get them on the National Health. But in the impoverished world, particularly Africa where HIV was raging, no one was receiving them unless they were rich enough to pay for them.”
Blake, whose background was in entertainment, had been working in HIV- and AIDS-related charities for years. She knew people—A-listers in the entertainment world—and she knew how to engage and mobilize them. Grammy-winner Alicia Keys helped co-found Keep a Child Alive.
Since 2004, Keys has hosted the annual Black Ball in New York to raise money—$13 million benefiting children and families with HIV/AIDS in India and Africa, as of late October—as well as awareness for the cause and the organization’s efforts. The list of performers who have rocked the stage for this cause reads like a who’s who of artistic elite—U2’s Bono, Justin Timberlake, Annie Lennox, Chris Martin of Coldplay, and David Bowie, to name a few.
The Black Ball became a “shining moment” and an opportunity for Keep a Child Alive organizers to gain long-term financial involvement from donors by “explaining to them why it is so important that we all come together for this issue that has devastated more people than all the wars and all the famines—for no good reason. We have the drugs, we know they work, there is no reason for this to be the way,” Blake says.
Years before that long-distance encounter with Anne in Africa, Blake’s activism began in New York. Fueled by a love of the cutting-edge music and an obsession with Andy Warhol, she left London in the 1970s to come to the United States, where she wound up working in public relations for David Byrne and the Talking Heads. Over the next decade, many of Blake’s friends in the art world began contracting what then was a little-known disease. “And many of those great, great people I knew back in the day died of AIDS,” she says. “It really moved me; it was really terrible to see those beautiful young men turn into 85-year-old skeletons in front of you.”
Blake knew she had to do something. Through another project, she met and partnered with lawyer John Carlin, whose firm, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, was then managing the Cole Porter estate. “We cooked up this idea that if we got all my friends to rerecord a Cole Porter song at the estate, then that would be a way of using this great symbol of America to be a Trojan horse for us to get our message about AIDS across.”
Soon, Blake had friends like Annie Lennox, David Byrne, U2, Erasure and Fine Young Cannibals on board to cover Cole Porter songs. The result was called Red Hot + Blue and the response was enormous. “It was at the time the second-highest-selling charity album, ever. All the proceeds went to AIDS. And we did some very legendary things with that money,” Blake says. From Red Hot + Blue, other versions were subsequently recorded and released, including 1992’s Red Hot + Dance followed by Red Hot + Country and Red Hot + Rio.
Blake used proceeds from Red Hot + Blue to open that first clinic in Kenya. “I was very lucky to meet a really, really great doctor at New York University Medical Center [Shaffiq Essajee] and he was willing to build a clinic and provide pediatric care. So we lobbied for a hospital in Kenya to provide the space and we built that clinic in there. Many people came who were HIV-positive and could not afford the drugs. We thought let’s at least keep them healthy to stave AIDS off for another year or so.” But that was before she overheard the African’s mother’s desperate plea for help.
After overhearing Anne pleading for drugs to help her sick child, Blake knew she had to do more. In addition to providing life-prolonging drugs for children and families, Keep a Child Alive has supported other clinics in countries including Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa and India. While the organization continues to make strides in helping people, the need is tremendous: An estimated 170,000 children under age 15 are living with HIV in India; 1.5 million people are living with HIV in Kenya; and AIDS has orphaned 1.9 million children in South Africa.
At press time, Keep a Child Alive was planning another Black Ball in November, with a stellar lineup including Will I Am, Mary J. Blige, Usher, Nora Jones, Midival Punditz, Karsh Kale, Gary Clark Jr. and Jay Sean, as well as a tribute to George Harrison.
Blake, meantime, has moved into other advocacy work—with even bigger goals. “I continue to want to make films about the issue because I believe movies can change the world,” she says. “So there is a film that we have in development at the moment. We’re also working on the creation of a brand-new movement whose endgame is to eradicate AIDS altogether. And we’re working on that now. And that’s something I believe will be the most powerful thing we’ve done yet, complete eradication; that’s what we’re focused on.”