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Depicting AIDS' effect on Africa

A traveling exhibition is a vivid reminder of a pandemic.

David Snyder is hoping to start an epidemic. And he isn't thinking of the usual kind.

"We want to launch an epidemic of compassion," said Snyder, the executive director of World Vision USA for New Jersey.

For months, Snyder has been involved with a traveling exhibition that will land in Moorestown from Friday through June 2 at the town's First Presbyterian Church. The interactive exhibition, World Vision Experience: AIDS, is a vivid reminder that AIDS is a pandemic in Africa and other parts of the world, and that its victims are often the children left orphaned by the scourge.

"Our mission at World Vision is to wake up the entire community and raise consciousness about how much need for help there is," said Snyder, who joined World Vision, the largest Christian relief agency in the world, in 2005.

The exhibition was first seen at New York's Grand Central Station in the summer of 2006. "Even people rushing to and from work were deeply moved - some actually returned to complete their tours if they hadn't had time to finish," Snyder said.

Visitors to the 2,340-square-foot exhibit "Step Into Africa," as they walk through a recreation of an African village.

Through headsets, those visitors listen to the stories of three children whose lives have been deeply altered by AIDS.

"It's hard to walk away from this without being profoundly affected and without wanting to help," Snyder said.

Featured in the exhibit are Kombo, a boy who lives along the Kenyan "AIDS Highway"; Babirye, a Ugandan girl who watched her father die and her mother grow weaker; and Mathabo, a young girl living alone in the highlands of Lesotho who faces danger, assault and disease in her abandonment.

Each visitor receives a personal audio track narrated by one of the three children.

The urgent plights and fears of these children drive the message home even more than the sobering statistics, including the fact that in sub-Saharan Africa 25 million men, women and children are infected with HIV.

For Carol McWilliams, project manager of the vast World Vision Experience: AIDS for the Moorestown church, the specter of the disease became deeply personal when she traveled to Kenya last summer.

"I was blown away by the AIDS orphans, young children who were often heads of households. The children were like deer in the headlights. You can never forget them," McWilliams said.

"At one point, we sat in on a support group in Soweto in Nairobi. We met a grandmother raising 10 grandchildren who was so desperate - her grandchildren had no parents left - that she thought she would kill either herself or the children," McWilliams said. A self-help group supported her and got her through.

McWilliams has been working on the World Vision project for months. She hopes that people who can't get to Africa for a close-up experience will feel the disease's impact through the exhibition.

"Fortunately, our church opened a new commons facility last fall, and it gave us the opportunity to offer a space large enough for the exhibition," she said. "Our church has always been very involved in social action, so it was a perfect match with World Vision."

First Presbyterian of Moorestown will be the only Delaware Valley site for the exhibit, which will make 30 stops around the country this year.

"We're hoping that we will attract Philadelphians to cross the river to see this exhibition," Snyder said. "The human dimensions of the disease need to be understood here and everywhere."

Step into Africa

"World Vision Experience: AIDS" will be on view at the First Presbyterian Church, 101 Bridgeboro Rd., Moorestown, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday, Saturday and June 2, and noon to 9 p.m. next Sunday. The exhibit is free.

Children under 12 may be disturbed by some of the content of the audio presentation. Parental discretion is advised.

Special events include: Pastors' breakfast featuring Emmanuel Mutangana, a former World Vision-sponsored child, at 8 a.m. Friday. Youth coffeehouse, 6 p.m. Friday. Speaker Steve Haas, an executive of World Vision, at 8 a.m. Saturday. A Hope Concert to benefit the children in a Kenyan school at 7 p.m. Sunday. Princess Kasune Zulu of Zambia at a noon luncheon June 2.

For information and reservations for all special events, call 856-235-1097 or e-mail