MARYKNOLL Sister Mary Annel has been working on the frontline in the fight against HIV/AIDS in El Salvador for the past 12 years.
For the past few weeks she has been visiting Adelaide, Port Pirie, Melbourne and Brisbane as a guest of Caritas Australia to promote its annual appeal, Project Compassion, during Lent.
For the past 12 years she has been involved in AIDS prevention in El Salvador and pastorally accompanying people living with the disease.
As a medical doctor, Sr Annel currently attends to 130 people living with the virus, and children under 12 who are not infected.
She said she sees 10 children who have AIDS, but there are another 100 children whose parents are living with the virus.
‘We would have 20,000 people a year at our courses (for AIDS prevention),’ she said.
‘We would calculate that each person who takes one of our courses will speak to five others.’
Youth theatre is an important part of the education program for AIDS prevention, and Sr Annel said about 150 young people had been through the program.
She said they have a significant impact on educating other teenagers.
‘I want to cheer every time a 15 year-old male gets up from the table after a meal and takes his dish to the sink, because that’s not the way society is.
‘(The male) is served ‘and the female does what he asks.’
The idea of the diocesan program Sr Annel runs in San Salvador is to change attitudes in favour of transformation that will prevent AIDS.
As a Church program, it is about helping people make changes in their lives.
‘It is about long-term solutions, and especially about respect for every human being,’ Sr Annel said.
She said this work would not be possible without financial support that comes from Caritas Australia.
‘About half our budget comes from Caritas Australia.’
Originally from the United States, Sr Annel now calls Central America home, having spent 15 years in Guatemala before her current 12-year stint in El Salvador.
As a result of living through periods of intense civil violence in Central America, she says danger is no longer something she thinks about.
Sr Annel said mission is always the focus of the Maryknoll Sisters, and only those who share that commitment are invited into the El Salvador program.
‘Everyone in the program has a sense of mission and being called to ministering to people with AIDS.’
The program has 17 employees and 300 volunteers, as well as 100 teenagers involved in the youth theatre.
Volunteers are also educated to train people in the parishes for home visitation.
The program includes a clinic that is a safe place where there are no prejudices against people with the HIV/AIDS virus.
‘All our patients are poor and they receive nutritional supplements.
‘If our clinic was not there, the Church’s compassion for people living with AIDS wouldn’t be so visible.
‘We are part of the Church, accompanying them pastorally in search for life with more hope and more empowerment.’
To donate to Project Compassion to help Caritas Australia to continue to support this work in El Salvador and other aid projects around the world, phone 1800 024 413.