Global AIDS aid: His cause strikes chord on campus

Email|Print| Text size + By Stephanie V. Siek
Globe Staff / December 27, 2007

Vinay Gokaldas's nationality is Indian. His schooling, childhood, and spirit are Ghanian. His college is American. But his compassion has no such borders.

Gokaldas, a 19-year-old sophomore at Bentley College, is at the forefront of a campus effort that has raised thousands of dollars for a global AIDS charity and the Mmofra Trom Center - a complex in the Somanya region of Ghana that houses 18 children orphaned by AIDS, as well as an international school and an economic development project.

The campaign spearheaded by Gokaldas raised $5,320 this year. Half of that money will be donated to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Malaria, and Tuberculosis, and the other half will be donated to the Mmofra Trom Center.

According to the United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, about 320,000 people, or 2.3 percent of Ghana's adults age 15-49, are infected with the virus.

An estimated 170,000 children there have been orphaned because of AIDS.

Ghana, compared with some other sub-Saharan nations in Africa, has a lower percentage of people infected with HIV, in part due to large-scale education campaigns. Gokaldas remembers learning about the epidemic - and how to prevent infection - in middle school in Ghana, during a sex education class. He didn't know anyone with HIV, but many of his friends did.

"I remember it was quite scary. It was like, everywhere you went, 'AIDS is real, AIDS is real;' condom ads saying, 'If it's not on, it's not in,' " said Gokaldas. "There'd be stickers on cars, stickers on taxis. It's a culture."

The seeds for the effort were planted last fall, when the Bentley campus received a visit from Carol Gray, founder of Hugs International TLC, a charity that has built schools and orphanages and provided other humanitarian aid in several countries. The creation of the Mmofra Trom Center is its most recent project. It's just 20 miles from Gokaldas's family home in Accra, but he had never heard of it. He decided that other people should, and started brainstorming ways to raise money.

Gokaldas found a model in the (PRODUCT)RED campaign - an effort that uses products specially designed by well-known brands like Gap and Motorola to raise money for The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Malaria, and Tuberculosis. A portion of the purchase price is donated directly to the fund for projects fighting AIDS in African countries.

Gokaldas's strategy was more local. Instead of relying on more expensive, nationally distributed brands, he designed his own T-shirt, and called the campaign to sell them Bentley Goes Red for Africa. This year, the red, long-sleeved T-shirts featured an image of the school mascot, a falcon, carrying an outline of Africa. He and the other organizers had 750 of the shirts printed this year by a student-run company and sold them for $10 each during the first week of December. Similarly decorated dog tags sold for $5 apiece.

The shirts sold out in four days. On Dec. 6, the campus was peppered with students, staff, and faculty wearing them.

That evening, the campaign held an event featuring Ghanian food, performances by the Harvard University Pan-African Dance Association and the Bentley Step Squad, and presentations about HIV/AIDS and the Mmofra Trom Center.

In a natural move led by a person who defines himself as a blend of both Indian and Ghanian cultures, the effort Gokaldas launched grew to include a melange of campus groups: The Association of Latin Professionals in Finance and Accounting, Black United Body, the Bentley Association of Chinese Students, the International Students Association, Portuguese Across Continents, the Student Government Association, and the South Asian Student Association all took part.

Gokaldas is quick to note that he can't take sole credit for the event's success, but he gets a lot of credit from others.

"He's like a magnet," said Diane Kellogg, a Bentley professor. "Often on a campus, different student organizations are kind of competing with each other. This was a unifying activity. It needed everybody and everybody's support."

Kellogg, who codirects Bentley's service learning partnership with the Mmofra Trom Center, said the money would probably go toward the center's goal of raising $25,000 to complete construction of a dormitory building at the international school - allowing the school to take boarders from more affluent families and helping to make the project self-sufficient.

Money from last year's Bentley Goes Red event was used to furnish an Internet cafe and computer lab accessible to both the students and orphans at the complex and the surrounding communities.

Gokaldas is majoring in economics and finance, coupled with a second major concentrating on global perspectives.

When he looks at his future, he sees a lot of open doors - maybe working for a nongovernmental organization or his family's pharmaceutical business. But he is certain that his path will lead him - and his skills - back to Ghana.

"A lot of my friends and I have been brought up in Ghana our whole lives," he said. "My graduation class at Ghana International School all had aims to go to school and give back to the community. . . . I consider myself Indian, but I like to think of my culture and spirit as Ghanian."

Stephanie V. Siek can be reached at

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