How will you be commemorating National HIV Testing Day, June 27? Alfre Woodard, the Emmy Award-winning actor and star of TNT's hit series Memphis Beat, makes it easy for anybody to make a difference: In 2009, she and other actors such as Matt Damon and Helen Mirren lent their voices to Nelson Mandela's Favorite African Folktales (mandelasfavoritefolktales.com), an audiobook from which proceeds go to help orphans of the disease in South Africa.
"The sale of just one book can support a child for an entire month," says Woodard, who credits her father with teaching her that doing for others is a privilege, not a burden. "If you're not on the giving end, then you're going to be on the receiving end. And I'm grateful to be on the giving end."
Woodard became passionate about South Africa as a student at Boston University in the 1970s. After graduation, Woodard moved to Los Angeles, where she met fellow actors Danny Glover and Mary Steenburgen. In 1989 they helped found a nonprofit called Artists for a New South Africa (ANSA; ansafrica.org) and used their platform to lobby for sanctions against the South African government and its apartheid system of racial segregation.
When apartheid finally fell in 1994, it soon became clear that a new scourge was threatening the country: HIV/AIDS. According to AVERT, a global AIDS charity, South Africa had one of the fastest-growing rates of infection in the world up to 1998, and by 2001 nearly 25% of pregnant women in the country had the disease. So ANSA altered its mission and in 2005 created It Takes a Village, a program to address the needs of the more than 1 million children orphaned by HIV/AIDS.
To date, ANSA has raised more than $9 million in donations, has sent 70 tons of books to South Africa, and since 2005 has helped local communities care for more than 3,500 AIDS orphans.
"You learn as a young black person that you're part of a continuum," says Woodard of her passion for the people of South Africa. "People who came before me did things that made it possible for me to have the life I have now. So you do the right thing and you might not see it at the end of the day, but you're paying it forward.”