- Associated Press - Saturday, June 27, 2015

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Her name was Faith.

She arrived at the hospital sick and malnourished. At 4 years old, the little girl in Kenya weighed 4 kilos, or roughly 9 pounds, the size of a newborn baby.

She was the first patient Dr. Rachel Vreeman diagnosed with HIV. Two days later, she was dead.

“She was too sick for us to save. I remember I had this picture I took of her, and her mother looked really happy because she thinks they’ve made it to the referral hospital, and if there’s anywhere to have hope, this is the place. I printed it and gave it to her mother,” said Vreeman, who was in her pediatric residency at the time.

“After Faith died, her mother kept thanking me for giving her this picture, but I felt terrible because I hadn’t done anything. I hadn’t been able to keep her daughter alive.”

It was the only photo Faith’s mother had of her daughter.

Vreeman, 37, is now the associate professor of pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine, director of research for the IU Center for Global Health and co-director of research and pediatric HIV care for the AMPATH (Academic Model Providing Access to Healthcare) program in Kenya.

Since 2006, she has been working to figure out how to best provide HIV care for some of the world’s poorest children. The AMPATH program supports 60 clinics and more than 150,000 patients across Kenya in partnership with the Moi University School of Medicine.

Of the 3.2 million children infected with HIV worldwide, 90 percent live in Sub-Saharan Africa. Only one-quarter of those children have access to treatment.

“Without it they will die. In fact, half will die before their second birthday. It’s critical that we’re able to build systems to provide care for children living with this infection. Otherwise, it’s a death sentence,” said Vreeman.

“But with assistance, we’re able to help them live long, happy, and full lives.”

Vreeman splits her time between Indianapolis and Kenya. During her time in Kenya, she realized that despite providing the best medical care the program can provide, the children needed more support.

She had the idea to launch a fashion initiative that would pay for support services through peer groups, counseling and education services.

She knew she wanted to create something using the traditional, colorful African kitenge cloth, but it was her friend Dominique Price who came up with the idea of pocket squares.

With the help of their friends and family in Indianapolis and Vreeman’s team in Kenya, The Pocket Square Project launched on World AIDS Day, Dec. 1.

“People always ask about wearing a conversation piece - pocket squares are a good way to do that. They’re a new take on a classic piece that can help tell our story,” said Price, an attorney at Ice Miller, who co-founded the project with Vreeman.

All of the proceeds from the project go directly to the program in Kenya.

Since The Project Square Project’s launch, they’ve been able to host several peer support groups at the clinic, said Carole McAteer, an Indiana University School of Medicine research associate who has been working with Vreeman since 2012.

The last support group clinic had 40 children. For $100, they were provide a day of fun, learning, snacks and transportation. The youth were also able to fill their medicine, McAteer said.

The pocket squares, which are made at various locations throughout Kenya by local craftspeople and tailors, sell for $20.

“It’s not a huge investment, but the impact is so big. It’s cool and unique and provides this greatly needed resource,” said Price.

Vreeman said they plan to move production to a center that provides skills training to adolescents that used to live on the streets.

Back in Indy, The Pocket Square Project recently enlisted Marcus Brown, of Louis Lien bow tie company, to create special-edition, hand-made bow ties out of the kitenge fabric. The pocket squares and the bow ties are sold online at thepocketsquareproject.org and at the Pattern store on Mass Ave. They are seeking additional retail locations and plan to expand beyond pocket squares, possibly headbands for women.

“We have the opportunity to be transparent about where our product is being made and where money is going. You can see a direct influence how your fashion purchase is supporting kids to have a different and better life,” Vreeman said.

They hope the project will grow to sustain one or two full-time counselors which would cost about $9,000 for the year. But Vreeman says support for the program can go beyond care for HIV patients, providing broader services like management for chronic diseases like high blood pressure or diabetes and primary care.

“I ended up working in HIV because it is this disease of poverty and that affects children and women in poor places disproportionately. If you can take care of HIV in places like that, you can take care of any medical condition,” she said.

The most challenging part of her job is that she still sees kids die, almost daily.

“Too many don’t come into care until they’re too sick, and it’s too late. The good part is there are many more that we are able to keep alive with medicine. If we can start early enough, we can transform their condition from being so sick and terrible to something they can live with,” she said.

Vreeman still thinks about Faith every year on Dec. 1. She would turn 15 this year.

“I think about how old she should be, but in reverse I think about how different it looks for the children who were are able to get into care. … I see those children and it makes me want that for all of them.”

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Source: The Indianapolis Star, http://indy.st/1LnoSLl

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Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com

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