Dr. Bob Bennett believes that engaging youth is instrumental to tackling AIDS and other global health challenges. “Youth are ambitious, interested and eager to participate in humanitarian initiatives. Young people want to make an impact,” says Dr. Bennett.
Dr. Bob first met Dignitas co-founder Dr. James Orbinski in October 2001, just weeks after 9/11. The two were part of a University of Toronto open house celebrating the centenary of the Nobel Prize. Dr. Orbinski had been asked to speak on behalf of Médecins Sans Frontières, which won the esteemed peace prize in 1999. After meeting again in the following weeks, months and years, a warm friendship was formed.
In 2004, Dr. Orbinski told Dr. Bob about a new medical and research organization he was helping to start up, which would enable communities in Malawi confront the AIDS epidemic head on. Less than a year later, Dr. Bob reached out to see if Dignitas International would consider accepting an externship position for a University of Toronto student. That summer the Dignitas Youth program was born.
The mission of Dignitas Youth is to strengthen the international AIDS response by equipping youth to effect change and empowering them to become the influential global leaders of tomorrow. Today there are eleven active Dignitas Youth chapters – these high schools and universities annually raise awareness and funds for Dignitas’s medical programs aimed at preventing mother-to-child HIV transmission and creating an AIDS-free generation.
By supporting the Dignitas Youth program in its early years, Dr. Bob and other volunteer champions helped to kickstart a movement of young people working to address the health challenges of communities devastated by the AIDS epidemic in Malawi. To date, Dignitas Youth chapters have raised more than $475,000 to improve access to lifesaving treatment and care.
Because of this, people with HIV are healthier and living longer than ever before. Beyond this, when people stay on treatment, the chance of transmitting the virus to people they love is almost zero. There are currently 13 million people on HIV treatment globally and the UN recently issued a call to end AIDS by the year 2030. This goal spurs Dignitas Youth chapters to keep pushing on.
Dr. Bob is very proud of the accomplishments that Dignitas Youth has achieved and is excited about the organization’s future, especially in relation to the emerging work with Aboriginal communities. By applying the experience and expertise gained internationally over the past decade, Dignitas hopes to transform health care in remote northern communities right here in Canada, as well globally.
Looking forward, Dr. Bob hopes that young people will continue to serve as leaders and advocates for the rights of vulnerable people around the world, especially fellow youth. The very real possibility of an AIDS-free generation is exhilarating to him.
“An AIDS-free generation? This is something I never would have imagined possible in my lifetime. We now have the science that shows it is achievable. It is up to all of us, including the next wave of young leaders, to make it a reality,“ says Dr. Bob.