Adolescent Health and Empowerment

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Young Jamaican AIDS Activist Kerrel McKay visits Senegal

Rapt attention from the villagers of Yoff, Senegal as Kerrel shares her story of sadness and triumph following her father's death from AIDS

Young Jamaican AIDS Activist Kerrel McKay who has become the unofficial international ambassador in the fight against AIDS was guest speaker in May at a regional communication workshop organized by UNICEF in Dakar, Senegal.   Kerrel spoke on the Unite for Children, Unite Against AIDS campaign and shared her life and work with the communicators.  While there, Kerrel was invited to speak to the community of  Yoff in Dakar.  She was given a traditional senegalese welcome with dancing and songs.   The senegalese community of Yoff certainly enjoyed her presence and was very impressed with her story of being an orphan after her father died from the disease.  

The religious and village leaders were among those who came to see her encouraged the villagers to learn from Kerrel's story,  to be like her; courageous and caring and knowing that there are always persons ready to help.

Kerrel who is Presdient of  the Portland AIDS Committee Youth Group, co-chaird the launch of the Global Campaign on Children and AIDS at the United Nations in November, 2005.  She will be attending the follow-up global conference to be held in Paris in June this year and was recently featured on French television station- TF1.  


I was nine years old when I found out my father was HIV positive. It was 1994, but I can remember my mother’s words as if it were yesterday: “Kerrel, I don’t want you to eat from your father, because he has AIDS. Be very careful when you are around him.”

AIDS wasn’t something we talked about in Jamaica when I was growing up. What I knew about AIDS could be summed up like this: If you were HIV-positive, you were going to die. You were going to suffer before you die. And you may as well not even expect anyone to treat you well.

From then on, I knew that this would be my family’s little secret. For a while, my father could take care of himself. But when I was 12, his condition worsened. With my parents separated, there was no one to look after my father, so it fell to me to take care of him.

After school, I would go to his house and spend the afternoon cooking, cleaning, shopping for groceries or taking my father to the doctor. We couldn’t afford much medicine, and with my father unable to work, I had no money for school supplies and often couldn’t even buy food for dinner. I would sit in class feeling completely lost, the teacher’s words muffled as I frantically tried to figure out how I was going to manage.

I did not share my burden with anyone, not even to those in my immediate family. They not asking how I was coping were a sign for me that they too did not know how to deal with what was happening. I had seen how people reacted to those infected and affected by AIDS, so by then I knew this was a secret I must keep. My father’s condition soon worsened and I was unable to care for him in the best possible way, seeing my limited experience and lack of knowledge about the disease. He was then moved to the hospital; where even our health care providers neglected to bathe him and would leave his food on the bedside table even though he was too weak to feed himself.

I had known from day one that my father was going to die, but after so many years of keeping his condition a secret, I was completely unprepared when he reached his final days. I couldn’t bear the thought of watching him die, I couldn’t imagine life without him, and so I decided to kill myself first.

Luckily, I found someone who cared. Despondent, I called a woman at the non-profit Jamaica AIDS Support who had helped get my father into a caring hospice, a place where I felt that everything would be ok.That there was a chance for him to live longer. She kept me on the phone for hours, and she left me with a sense of hope.

The most important thing I learned from her was this: I am not an anomaly. In Jamaica, in the Caribbean, throughout the world, there are millions of children like me who first lose their childhood to a parent’s illness and then lose their parent to AIDS.

Worldwide, there are 15 million children who have lost at least one parent to AIDS. Out of this In Latin America and the Caribbean there is an estimated 752, 000 children who have lost one or both parents to the epidemic, approximately 740 000 young people between the ages of 15-24 years are living with HIV/AIDS in the Latin America and the Caribbean and nearly 50 000 children under the age of 15 are living with HIV/AIDS, again this is in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Today, I represent the millions more children who are living in the shadow of AIDS, forced to skip school to tend to sick parents, left to scrounge for food and medicine and grow up without parental protection, guidance and love. Most of these children are cared for by already over-burdened relatives. Rarely do they get any outside help. I was lucky enough to get counseling, but in this I was an anomaly. According to UNICEF, less than 10 per cent of children affected by AIDS receive any public support or services.
It is time for the world to wake up to the fact that HIV/AIDS is not for adults only. The AIDS pandemic is devastating children throughout the world. This is the reason why I stand before you today to say to you,
When adults decide how to tackle the world’s AIDS crisis, children must become part of their thinking, because AIDS is taking too much away from children. The needs of children must be addressed in national plans and budgets aimed at the AIDS pandemic. Children need medicine, healthcare and psychological support. They need help caring for their sick parents and assistance so they can continue going to school. They need the care and stability of a strong family. And they need the education and services that will enable them to protect themselves from HIV.

This is the reason why such a campaign is crucial, because it is defending our future and protecting our children, it is aimed at “hitting the nail on the head”. I got help at a time when resources were not in abundance like it is today. I was able to start a youth group and mobilize thousands of other youngsters by the help of those who saw it necessary to include young people in the response.
I was 15 when my father died on February 27, 2000. He took his “secret” to the grave, having never spoken about AIDS to anyone, even me. He didn’t want to call attention to AIDS. I do.

My trip to Senegal as part of the UNICEF Dakar National Committee Communication Workshop

Upon arrival in the village I was greeted with an announcement over the mini PA system that was set up to continue the evening proceedings.

It took a while before the activities started. When it did, I was amazed by the number of both youngsters and adults who turned out to the event. We had over 60 community members in attendance. The programme unfolded with a dance done by the ladies in the village. They were dressed in colorful costume of yellow, green, black and white.

An announcement was made and then I noticed I was being summoned to dance with the ladies.
At first I was shy but then I realized that I had no need to be.
I got in my elements and showed them too moves that I learnt back home (Jamaica). The village leaders soon joined. They all made speeches concerning my trip and of the work I have been doing with UNICEF. They told me how proud they were of me and that I should continue on the same path. I also felt at home when one of the village leaders made reference to the fact we are brothers and sisters. This was done by connecting our history.

I was given a chance to share my experience to the members of the community and they were all surprised that I was bold enough to say in public that my father died from HIV. It was the first some of the people were hearing such message and for most of them if not all, they thought it was an act of bravery.

For me, I was surprised at the fact that there still are people living in such fear of disclosing theirs or relatives status, when so many are being affected around them. So it was my pleasure to have done so and hoped me sharing my experience had an effect on those present.

The evening came to a close with two theatre pieces. I did not understand most of it, due to the fact that it was done in Wolof, the Senegalese native language. However I could tell that the pieces both entailed humor and a message due to the expressions on everyone’s faces.

I left the community with a sense of accomplishment and a connection to a group of people I was meeting for the first time. My trip was fulfilling and I would not mind doing it again.



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