August 15, 2008

Father Terry Charlton embraces role at world’s first high school for AIDS orphans

In June, a group of students danced during St. Aloysius Day festivities, part of the celebration at St. Aloysius Gonzaga High School in Kenya. The school was co-founded by Jesuit Father Terry Charlton, a 1966 graduate of Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis. (Submitted photo)

In June, a group of students danced during St. Aloysius Day festivities, part of the celebration at St. Aloysius Gonzaga High School in Kenya. The school was co-founded by Jesuit Father Terry Charlton, a 1966 graduate of Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis. (Submitted photo)

(Editor’s note: “Stewards Abroad” is an occasional series that reports on the missionary efforts of Catholics from the Archdiocese of Indianapolis throughout the world.)

By John Shaughnessy

He tells the story about a youth named David, a story filled with both heartbreak and hope.

Then Jesuit Father Terry Charlton wonders how he would have reacted if he faced the challenges that David confronted in his life.

Growing up in a slum in Africa, David lived with his mother and two older brothers. By the time he was 14, his mother had died of AIDS and his two older brothers left their home, leaving David to fend for himself. For the next three years, David lived on his own. He survived by selling water in the streets of Nairobi, Kenya.

He then heard about St. Aloysius Gonzaga High School in Nairobi, which is believed to be the world’s first high school for AIDS orphans—a school co-founded by Father Charlton, a 1966 graduate of Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis.

“David had good marks in his primary school, and we accepted him,” Father Charlton recalls. “He’s a good leader. He started some AIDS awareness programs which have continued. Now, he’s doing a diploma [the equivalent of an associate’s degree in the United States] in community development. He remains involved in the community and wants to come back and help after he finishes it. That’s the story of everyone in the school.”

When he finishes sharing that capsule of David’s life, Father Charlton turns pensive: “I’ve been struck that despite their situation they are similar to myself. They’re people with desires, with goals—people who want to accomplish something. Except, I think, they’re better. I don’t know what I would do coming from a situation of so much desperation.

“I’m profoundly struck by their faith in God and their gratitude. We have a monthly Mass at the school. Their petitions always start with thanks—thanks for their parents, their teachers, their opportunities for education. And I wonder if I came from their background if I’d be cursing God. So they prove a challenge to me and my faith.”

Taking a risk

As Father Charlton talks, he is back in central Indiana, part of his annual visit to see family and friends. For the past 20 years, he has lived in Africa, following a path dedicated to changing lives for the better, following a path that, he says, has changed his life for the better, too.

When he first arrived in Africa in 1988, he worked at a spirituality center, teaching courses and leading retreats. Twenty years later, he has three major responsibilities. He is the vocations director for the Jesuits in Kenya. He is also the national chaplain for the Christian Life Community (CLC), an organization that follows the principles of Ignatian spirituality to make a difference in the lives of others through service. And he is the co-founder and chaplain of St. Aloysius Gonzaga High School.

On this day, Father Charlton focuses on the school. He shares how it opened in 2004, how it provides a free education to 260 students who are AIDS orphans, and how a new $2 million building that is scheduled to open in 2010 will enable the school to serve 420 students.

Then he talks about how members of the Christian Life Community first approached him about starting the school—and how it went against his usual approach to life.

“I’ve always been cautious and wanted to plan ahead,” he says, as a smile begins to cross his face. “When I was approached by CLC members about starting the school, we had basically nothing. I knew it would be a real risk. But I said, ‘There’s so much need here, we have to try.’ In a month, we had to find a place for the school, money for the school, and teachers. And it’s grown from there.”

It’s grown to make a world of difference in the lives of young people like David.

“It says to me that sometimes we have to take a risk, to believe that God can accomplish something in us, even if we’re not sure of our resources,” Father Charlton says. “I’ve learned from experience. It didn’t start with an idea. It started from interaction with people, listening to their needs, and listening to how we could meet those needs.”

A hope for the future

The impact of St. Aloysius on young people’s lives was evident for a group of 12 students and four adults from Brebeuf when they visited the school and other African sites in the summer of 2007.

“The kids who went and experienced St. Aloysius were transformed,” said Dr. Matt Hayes, Brebeuf’s president. “Their vision of the world is different now. [Father Charlton] is absolutely wonderful. His ministry there is just amazing.”

Freezell Brown had the same reaction when he led the Brebeuf group to Kenya in 2007.

“We had read about and seen some video of St. Aloysius before we came, but none of that prepared us for being there,” recalls Brown, Brebeuf’s director of diversity. “As we had the chance to view the school and meet the students, we realized what an enormous undertaking the running of the school was. I’m in awe of what Father Charlton has committed to. To see what they were accomplishing in the lives of the students was just overwhelming.”

Consider the story of Florine. She is one of about 3 million AIDS orphans in Kenya.

“She was our top girl graduate in 2006,” Father Charlton notes. “Somebody approached us and offered her a chance to attend the University of Wisconsin, at the Parkside campus. She’s now doing a degree in nursing. She expresses a strong desire to come back and help many more.”

Giving back is at the core of St. Aloysius School. In return for their free education, graduating seniors do community service for six to eight months in the slums where they grew up. Four days a week, the students work. On a fifth day, they reflect on their days of service.

“The ideal of our Ignatian education is to produce men and women for others,” Father Charlton says. “If we have this goal, it’s very important for us to help them. These are kids who wouldn’t have a chance for high school otherwise. Education is their way out of poverty.”

Father Charlton pauses. His voice is soft and touched by emotion as he begins to share the reason for everything he has done during his 20 years in Africa.

“We’re trying to give people hope in their future,” he says. “That’s true of our students most of all. The motto of the school is ‘to learn, to love and to serve.’ We try to help them see that, through education, they have so much potential to make a difference in their lives, for their families and for society. St. Aloysius is a place of hope. Our presence is one factor that helps people believe there is a way forward.”

(For more information about St. Aloysius Gonzaga High School, check the Web site at

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