These Boots Are Made for Savin’

Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul’s charitable giving reminds him of a dramatic time in South Africa with Ashley Judd.

‘Tis the season—for charity, evidently.  Lest you think from yesterday’s post that I’m completely neurotic about the holiday season, I do often feel charitable in the last month of the year.  And I’m not alone.  According to a story by Stephanie Strom in the New York Times, the most lucrative day of the year for charities is Dec. 31 when donations surge because of the soon to lapse tax breaks.

Skeptics—or Scrooges depending on your perspective—often worry that their money isn’t actually going to the neediest.  They gleefully cite recent stories about the marketing techniques some groups use to raise dollars during the holiday.  Turns out, there’s a chance that the dollars you thought you donated for a specific heifer or water buffalo for a poor family in Cambodia or Liberia actually went into a general fund for the community (read the fine print).  Sure, that kinda sucks, but it’s not like you were really going to visit your donated dollars hard at work on your next trip to South Africa.

But I did.  Several years ago Condé Nast Traveler dispatched me to Cape Town to oversee a photo shoot with Ashley Judd.  We were honoring her as a global ambassador for YouthAIDS, part of the global non-profit health organization PSIYouthAIDS, founded by the visionary force-of-nature Kate Roberts, works around the world to end HIV transmission in young people—for as little as $10 per month you can protect one person from becoming HIV+.  I know how effective their programs are because I was privileged to see their work up close with a personal tour from Ashley Judd.

At the time, I had no idea what I was getting into, and how much the trip would change my worldview.  So I’d like to share with you a little sneak peek from a very important Alphabet City chapter about my time with Ashley and YouthAIDS.

I know, I told you earlier this week you’d get no more excerpts until the book came out.  But I was just in DC meeting with the folks at PSI and YouthAIDS, and one of my friends/readers Tracy Z. encouraged me to share this tale.  And so in the spirit of the holidays, here’s an extra little gift to you, along with my annual donation I just made to YouthAIDS.  Please consider doing the same at www.YouthAIDS.org.  You can save a life, and I know it’s money well-spent.

Very Short (Bonus) Excerpt from Alphabet City’s Episode 16: Boots

The next morning, a crowd of photographers followed Ashley and entourage through clinic tours, testing sites, peer education programs, and a lunch with female hairdressers who were using their salons as distribution centers for safe sex messages.  At every turn, Ashley was poised, and able to effortlessly answer any question about the epidemic.

Early afternoon, we piled into a caravan of black SUVs and traded the flashbulbs and admiring crowds of Cape Town for the filthy streets and dying orphans of AIDS ravaged Khayelitsha Township.  While I had seen much poverty around the world, I was ill prepared for the devastation from the epidemic I witnessed at Ashley’s side.  She took me by the hand, lead me into a hospital treating dying children, and taught me to sit at the bedside of a 15-year old who was so emaciated from AIDS that he looked ten.  She showed me how to run my fingertips lightly along his arm

“Stroke like this.  Everyone needs a human touch.”

We moved from bedside to bedside of these abandoned and dying children for over an hour.  Ashley looked up at me every so often and smiled, encouraging me to keep giving and touching despite the heart-breaking situation.  I’d never seen such a caring and committed celebrity.

At one point, a six-year old boy with AIDS sporting yellow rain boots sat in my lap and demanded I carry him with me around the ward.  We nicknamed him Boots, and as I was about to leave, he couldn’t control his bladder and peed all over me.  I just smiled and kissed his forehead as I laid him back down in his bed.

Later that day, I tried shaking off the horror I had witnessed earlier to focus on capturing an image that would sell magazines, but it all seemed so pointless.  I knocked on Ashley’s trailer.

“How do you not feel guilty about all this luxury?” I asked.

“Remember, it’s never a choice, JP.  Never feel guilty for what you have.  Not as long as you work so that others have access to what they need.  It’s never a choice.”

She’d thought a lot about this disparity.  Ashley was a woman on a mission who trained her laser-like attention on a problem and attacked it with vigor.  Opinionated, she rarely suffered fools gladly—something that I noticed sometimes rubbed people the wrong way, similar to other pop-culture crusaders like Madonna or Angelina.  But seeing her in both spheres—the glamorous and the destitute—I appreciated the veneer she used like a passport to travel between the first and third worlds.

When my plane touched down in New York, I entered a new era.  My boss had been promoted to creative director for the company.  That meant that Editor and I would no longer work side-by-side, traveling the globe.  And a call from the YouthAIDS team confirmed my worry—just after I left Cape Town, Boots had died.  I might have been the last person to hold him, touch him, and kiss him.

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