Buddies for Babies : Volunteers Spell Parents of Children Who Have AIDS

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As 2 1/2-year-old Jay tottered across the living room toward a pile of wooden blocks, his diaper slipped to his knees. "Silly goose," baby-sitter Angela Hirt laughed as she swept the frail youngster into her arms, deftly changed his diaper and set him back on his feet.

It had been a week since Hirt last cared for Jay and his older brother, Lewis, 4, but she had been thinking about them, especially the younger boy. "He's special," she said softly.

Jay was born infected with the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Though he has not yet developed AIDS, he is small for his age. Beneath his white-blond hair, his skin is pale--almost translucent. And increasingly he is sick--fighting bouts of diarrhea, vomiting and pneumonia so severe last week that he spent seven days in the hospital.

To help Jay--and to give his working parents a break--Hirt now visits their apartment one night a week, giving the children dinner, cleaning the kitchen, lending a hand.

"I can't find a cure for AIDS. And I can't give the money to find a cure. But this is something I can do," said the 25-year-old registered nurse, who baby-sits for Jay and his brother free on her day off. (Jay is not the boy's real name. Because of the stigma that comes with AIDS, his parents requested that he and the rest of the family not be identified.)

Hirt is a volunteer for a new group called Baby Buddies that provides child care, transportation, and housekeeping for Long Beach and Orange County families coping with an often-hidden but agonizing problem of children infected with the AIDS virus.

The number of AIDS-infected children is not high in Orange County. The county itself reports 10 children with AIDS, but county officials say their numbers are not comprehensive. The two nearby hospitals that have centers for pediatric AIDS are treating 27 infected youngsters from Orange County.

But as more women contract AIDS or its related infections, the number of children with the deadly virus are expected to rise sharply.

So the start of Baby Buddies in June could mark the beginning of a support system for county families facing the stigma--and the debilitating effects--of pediatric AIDS, local experts said.

"I see increasing need for respite care," said Pearl Jemison-Smith, executive director of the AIDS Service Foundation in Costa Mesa, which this summer expanded its mission to include helping AIDS-infected children and now regularly refers families to Baby Buddies.

"We're dealing with a population of infected children--and affected children," she said. "They may not be infected, but if their parents are infected, we know there's a need for support."

Two Baby Buddies volunteers help every week at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center's pediatric AIDS clinic. Other volunteers have driven children to doctor appointments, said Claire Towle, clinical social worker there.

"We're very grateful the service is available," Towle said. Children with AIDS are "a population that's kept at arm's reach. So, thanks to caring individuals, the children will get the care they need."

Baby Buddies was started by Megan Ross, a 49-year-old grandmother who runs the program on a shoestring from her Fountain Valley home.

Ross, former director of Gay and Lesbian Service Center in Long Beach, said she was asked in November to raise money for a Los Angeles hospice that would care for babies with AIDS. Though she agreed to help, she also wondered why there was nothing similar in Orange County.

With that, Ross said, she decided to do something for the children herself. Starting the service took about eight months. In her cramped office at the back of her home, she installed a Baby Buddies phone line. Using a home computer, she designed application forms and a training program for workers. In June, she began recruiting volunteers.

Each is required to attend a four-hour Red Cross class explaining AIDS, the patients' need for confidentiality and ways the virus is transmitted.

In addition, Ross' volunteers must be fingerprinted. They must provide two letters of reference and take a child development class. Before they're given an assignment, they must spend four hours assisting one of three Baby Buddies "training families," each with an HIV-positive child.

Five prospective volunteers recently turned up at Red Cross headquarters in Santa Ana for the Baby Buddies class. Among them were a fifth-grade teacher, a personnel worker and an unemployed woman considering becoming a foster parent to HIV-positive children. All had known at least one person with AIDS--and one young woman said her husband had recently died of AIDS.

Why had they come? Ross asked. Their answers were virtually the same. Bob, the only man in the group, said: "The saddest thing is the children with AIDS. . . . I don't expect to have any children. But I wanted to get involved. And I figured you get back as much as you give."

By now, Ross has 32 active volunteers. Six more are finishing training. Besides providing baby-sitting and ferrying children to and from doctors, Baby Buddies volunteers have provided painting, gardening, home repair and clerical services to 70 families with HIV-positive children from Tustin to Riverside.

For all that, Ross readily admitted, "we're a little bit premature. We don't have a huge number of babies" with AIDS in Orange County.

Still, Ross said, her volunteers can make a difference for parents with an AIDS-infected child. "We want to be there for them--an extra helping hand," she said.

For Jay and his family, Baby Buddies has been that helping hand.

Jay was found to be HIV-positive 18 months ago, but recently the infection has made him especially sick--sending him to the hospital regularly with pneumonia.

For his parents--Lauren, a telemarketing executive who is also infected, and Robert, a construction worker and former drug addict who contracted the AIDS virus while injecting cocaine--life has become a waking nightmare.

When Jay comes down with pneumonia, they must take turns spending the night with him at the hospital, still care for their healthy son and hold down their jobs.

When Jay is sick, Lauren said, "your whole life gets thrown up in the air."

They cannot look to friends or family for help, she said. Her family, in Northern California, is too far away. Robert's would be shocked by Jay's diagnosis, so they haven't been told. They have not told many friends. And they cannot afford a baby-sitter.

So when a hospital worker told her about Baby Buddies several weeks ago, it was an answer to her prayers. One volunteer, Cali Fidopiastis, came last weekend to mop the kitchen floor, clean the stove, do housekeeping Lauren hasn't had time for.

And for the past two Tuesdays, when Robert attends an evening therapy group and Lauren is scheduled for counseling, volunteer Hirt has watched the children.

On Tuesday, Lauren was collapsed on the living room couch--exhausted and in pain after surgery several days earlier--as Hirt arrived to help out. The Baby Buddies volunteer took over quickly.

Hirt warmed the children's food--a TV dinner of applesauce and chicken nuggets--and talked both boys into eating it. When Jay vomited part of his meal, Hirt soothed him and calmly cleaned up.

After dinner, when Lauren left the apartment briefly, Hirt sat on the floor, helping the boys build and destroy a "castle" of wooden blocks.

"Go for it!" she yelled as she showed Jay how to place several tall blocks in a row, then knock them down like dominoes. When the blocks fell with a crash, she was Jay's cheerleader, proclaiming, "Good job! All right!"

For a moment, she studied the boy's pale face. "I see little smiles coming," Hirt said, smiling back. "Maybe you'll be a demolition person when you grow up. Good job!"

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