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By Burmese Writer

CHIANG MAI - Avis Rideout worked a year in a refugee camp in the late 1970s, where she saw "thousands of people" die as a result of torture by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge.

But nothing had more effect on her than the day a decade ago when she walked into the second-floor room of a government orphanage here, and saw five children lying hopeless with full-blown AIDS.

A two-year-old girl was bleeding from the nose, her abdomen swollen due to an enlarged liver and spleen, her limbs bony, her skin full of infection and yellow like a cancer patient. When Rideout held the child, she felt their hearts beating in rhythm.

At that very moment, she heard the call of abandoned children with HIV.

"I will never forget the moment I picked up Nikki," the Canadian Christian recently said. "You know what? It's the human touch they need. The nurse touched the children with gloved hands."

Rideout decided then she would ask to take Nikki home. She said the director thought she was crazy to think the Thai government would let her adopt a child with HIV. But Rideout, who has four children of her own, persisted and prayed to God to give her the "one seed" to start her own home.

She succeeded and her orphanage "Nikki's Place" was born.

Today, the home is known as "Agape," which means unconditional love. It has been named the most outstanding orphanage in Thailand.

At the home, thanks in part to generous donations, children find the love and personal attention from nannies they wouldn't get at an understaffed government orphanage.
Agape's main building is big and clean and has many rooms for children to sleep and play in. One wall is full of paintings drawn by the children. Small bathrooms are tidy and colorful. Drawers and shelves are filled with toys and clothes for each child. The children are like children everywhere, enjoying their games, playing and laughing .

Agape, which has served 182 children over the years, has expanded year after year, and now includes a unit for HIV-positive mothers so they can spend their last days with their children. Fifty nine children have been adopted from the home.

"There is Nikki.'' A lovely 12-year-old child with a pony tail and pink blouse appeared smiling at a window.
"Come here Nikki." Rideout waved her hand. 'Just step in. Come on!"

Rideout helped Nikki climb through the window and into the room. The girl looked smaller than her age. There is a scar on her right temple. She looks shy but is happy with the hug from her "Mae Avis," which means mother Avis in Thai.

Overcoming stigma and discrimination is a constant battle.

Even her own son was at first scared of getting HIV from Nikki, Rideout said. When he saw Nikki's nose bleeding, he stayed away and just told her, "Use the tissue paper to wipe it." Rideout's younger daughter didn't agree at first to bring Nikki home. But gradually their fears disappeared. Rideout also has faced discrimination from society.

Agape has its own recycled water system because neighbors were afraid they could get HIV from
the water. Rideout doesn't want to cause friction.

Rideout said recently when she took the children shopping and to a restaurant, a woman there grew fond of the children and asked Rideout if she could adopt one of them.

"Oh sure, You can," All the children are infected with HIV," Rideout replied. But the woman's smile faded, Rideout added.

Twenty-six children attend a public school near the home, where they sometimes are taunted by their classmates,

"You come from Agape. You have AIDS." Rideout said she had taught the children to reply, "How do you know that you don't have AIDS? Maybe you have AIDS too."

She is strict with her children, but gives them the love they wouldn't get elsewhere including
individual attention on their birthdays. Only a few currently need to take anti-AIDS drugs.

There has been sadness at the home as well. Fifty nine children have died.

"But not one has died alone," Rideout said. "Every one needs to be loved and cared for, especially in the last moments of their lives."

Every baby born to an HIV-positive mother gets antibodies from its mother. When the child is around 18 months old, the antibodies of the mother disappear and the child's own antibodies, if it is infected with HIV, remain. An HIV antibody test isn't conclusive for a child until then.

HIV transmits from mother to child in about 30 percent of the cases. It often happens during labor (65 percent), followed by pregnancy (23 percent) and after birth during breast feeding, (12 percent).

Some 490,000 children died of AIDS related diseases worldwide in 2003, according to an UNAIDS report this year.

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