Person of the Week: Gail Johnson

Long before little Nkosi Johnson captured the attention of the world, he'd already made an indelible mark on the people who loved him.

Nkosi, an HIV orphan, lost his mother to AIDS. Left on his own, he battled the disease at a time when South Africa was unwilling to talk about the growing epidemic.

At just 11 years old, he bravely spoke in front of the world at an International AIDS Conference in 2000. Nelson Mandela famously called him an "icon for the struggle of life."

VIDEO: Nkosis Haven, a shelter for mothers with AIDS, has blossomed into a village.
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"We are normal, we are human beings, we can walk, we can talk, we have needs just like everyone else," Johnson said at the conference in 2000. "Don't be afraid of us. We are all the same."

The Icon's Champion

Nkosi was South Africa's longest surviving child born HIV positive. Behind the young man, the icon, was his adopted mother, Gail Johnson. When his birth mother, also infected with the disease, was unable to take care of him, Johnson adopted him.

Together, Johnson and Nkosi started a "shoestring shelter" for a dozen AIDS mothers and their kids in 1999. They called the refuge, Nkosi's Haven.

On a tour of the shelter in 2000, Nkosi showed how full the shelter was.

"This is a small house. It can't fit the other mothers who are HIV. They are dying," Nkosi said.

The shelter was at capacity with 10 mothers and 15 children. Johnson knew the shelter would be the beginning of something greater.

"Now that we've got this house, I intend [on] having a hell of a lot more," Johnson said in 2000. "I want to sort of have a national franchise or chain of them. It's terribly important."

Still Fighting

Just a year later, Nkosi would succumb to the disease. It's been more than eight years since Johnson lost her boy, but she has not given up his cause.

"I'm constantly reminded that kids need help," she said. "We have a whole lot of little Nkosis, and it shouldn't be happening."

Johnson said that she is still fighting. She now supports more than 60 people who live in 17 residential cottages, a library and a hospital. She's created a refuge for families living with HIV, often giving women the antiviral medication they would not have been able to get elsewhere. The hard-to-find medicine extends their lives and gives children a longer life with their parents.

"You get some mums coming in and they've been sort of bedridden and within a week, they're sitting up. Within two weeks, they're sitting outside helping peel potatoes," Johnson said. "It's just great."

Tabiso, one of the residents, said it feels like home. He does not have HIV, but his mother does. She was very sick when she first came here, but once she began taking the antiviral medication, she began to bounce back.

"I love her so much," Tabiso's mom said of Johnson. "If it was not for her, I couldn't be here and my children wouldn't be with me."

One angel, one woman to thank: the woman who never gave up.

Johnson wishes that Nkosi were here to see what he started, but the support of so many helps her continue the mission they started together.

"I've got a hell of an extended family," Johnson said.

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