After every flight back from Kenya, Rachel Christine Vreeman cannot stop talking about one thing to her friends and family — the age.
Twelve to fourteen years old.
It's the age when many of children with HIV start to get really sick. She can see the warning signs. After all it's her job. Vreeman is the Director of Research for the Indiana University Center for Global Health and specializes in long-term care of children with HIV in low-income settings. Right now she is caring for 15,000 children and counting.
Vreeman spends six months of the year working in one of 65 Kenyan clinics that Indiana University, Moi University and AMPATH created. In between seeing patients and making sure the medical care runs as smoothly as possible, Vreeman is using fashion to raise money for them.
That is why she and Ice Miller attorney Dominique Price started The Pocket Square Project — an initiative to help raise funds for Kenyan children who have been diagnosed with HIV.
Fashion was actually the obvious choice for Price and Vreeman. They have been friends for several years and both have a keen interest in the industry. Vreeman will often have clothes made of the traditional kitenge fabric when she is in Kenya. Before a trip, Price asked her to bring him back some pocket squares. Because they were so small and could be made with leftover fabric she brought him nearly 40. He had the idea to sell them and give the profits to her to hire counselors to help the HIV positive kids during that pivotal time.
"When they hit adolescence they start to have a really difficult time," says Vreeman.
She explains that early teens is usually when they're finding out for the first time that they have HIV. Even though they have been taking medicine their wholes lives, many haven't been told that they have it due to the social stigma.
"The whole family might be seriously discriminated against," says Vreeman. "People lose jobs, they are forced out of their homes. There is a a lot of really terrible stuff that happens. And HIV is still really seen as a death sentence. Although that's not true. That's how everyone still sees it.
"All they want is what any normal teenage wants," says Vreeman, speaking about how the kids often feel. "They want to be like their friends, they don't want to be different. They think of course that they are pretty invincible — like all teenagers do. A lot of things come together where they don't want to take their medicines anymore, they don't want to come to clinic. Unfortunately a lot of our kids are pretty fragile clinically during that time. So if they stop taking their HIV medicines they can get sick really really fast."
While their program provides free medical care, they haven't been able to lock down the funding for extra programs like counseling and support groups — things that have been proven to keep kids on track with their treatment.
So this time last year, Price and Vreeman decided to see what they could do to fix it. Vreeman started going to the markets to buy fabric for more squares. Then she found out that the Tumaini innovation center (a place that provides support for street kids in Kenya) wanted a simple source of income. They began a partnership where she pays them to make the squares then brings them back to the U.S. to be sold. Volunteers who work with Vreeman bring back cases full of the fashion accessories every time they fly home. So far the pocket squares have paid for things like a traveling psychiatrist to be able to meet with children and a 15-team soccer tournament that is coming up on World AIDS Day in Kenya.
These kinds of benefits are the heart and soul of the project, but the sustenance is still the designs themselves. That's where Price comes into the picture. He helps merchandise and select designs.
"From the fashion perspective I saw a lot of people and designers using different cultures as part of fashion lines," says Price. "Like I think Ralph Lauren used kind of Native American motifs in one of his lines. I thought that was interesting and people like that kind of thing, but what are you giving back? You are taking something from a culture but what are you giving back? I think the idea that we are using this Kitenge fabric that's an important part of the Kenyan culture and the proceeds are going back to Kenya. It's threading awareness, knowledge and raises funds all together and brings attention to these issues."
The cultural appropriation is something that The Pocket Square Project counters head on, and it's a focus for both Price and Vreenman.
"I love being able to take those beautiful traditional fabrics and bring them here in a way that connects people, even far away, with those stories," says Vreeman. "I think the pocket squares — because they are made from these bright, vibrant usual patterns of fabric — they're real conversation starters. That way it's like taking the story about our kids in Kenya and kids who are growing up with HIV and what we want to do for them and what we want to change their stories. Literally putting that story in your pocket in a way that people ask about."
The Pocket Square Project
When: Dec. 1 (World AIDS Day), 6-10 p.m.
Where: Bitwell Event Center, 950 S. White River Pkwy. W. Drive