Life growing up on the farm in Medelia, Minnesota was quiet, but it wasn't peaceful for Amy Gillespie. Gillespie was an adopted child.
"When I was 10 years old my three year old sister died from an accident. She was trying to crawl through a window and the window had come down on her neck," Gillespie says. "And I found her, in that window, hanging from there. And you know to go and tell your parents that their only natural child has been in an accident and died, obviously leaves a huge, huge impact in your life."
A few years later she faced another trauma when one of her best friends died.
Gillespie grew up and became an insurance adjuster specializing in disasters. She flew around the country for hail storms, hurricanes and forest fires.
Then she got in a car accident and had to work what she calls nail polish claims. As in, 'I spilt nail polish on the rug, you need to replace it.' She didn't like it. So she quit. Around the same time she started seeing a message over and over again.
"You must help the children of darkness. And it would show up in stuff, messages I would get on Internet, email, and I thought this was a little bit crazy. And I said, 'Okay God, I don't know what it is you're asking me to do, but whatever it is, I don't have family here, I can go. But you've got to be very clear with me about what is this message that keeps coming up about children,'" Gillespie says.
Then she read an article about children in Africa orphaned by AIDS. She says something about it struck her, like God making an announcement. At 39, she packed up her house and took a position in Mozambique with an aid agency.
Mozambique is a former Portuguese colony. It borders Zimbabwe, South Africa and the Indian Ocean. The country hasn't done well. There's widespread illiteracy, and most of the country's land has never been farmed.
Gillespie says the country has only 800 doctors, and 600 of them work in the southern capital city. She was in central Mozambique, and she kept noticing how death was commonplace. Not from AIDS, but from simple things like car accidents. Kids would hold their breath, close their eyes then bolt across the road, hoping not to get hit.
One day she was walking in town. A car tapped the handle of a bicycle. The rider fell and hit his head on the sidewalk.
"And there were people pulling him off the street with the bicycle still between his legs," Gillespie says. "Just pulling him under his rib cage with his head hanging and the blood pouring out. And I'm yelling. 'Abajo, abajo! You've got to lower his head.' I'm yelling and I'm running. One and a half blocks to the hospital. And I show them, 'No, you've got to apply pressure!' Now they're wiping it. I give them my bandana. 'No, you've got to apply pressure! Presa! Presa!' So the man applies pressure. I say 'Okay, I'm going to run and get a doctor or someone from the hospital.' By the time I came back the man had died. "
Gillespie realized people needed basic skills. No agency was providing them, so she started her own. She says Mozambiqueans had just given up believing they could do anything about their fates. They expect death.
"They are always saying, 'O que fazer?' What to do? Ah the person died of HIV AIDS, o que fazer?'"
Gillespie answers the question with a blunt laugh.
"Use a condom. That's 'O que fazer,'" Gillespie says.
Behind the levity, you can hear Gillespie's frustration. She says Americans grew up learning fire safety, having swimming lessons, and tornado drills. Kids in Mozambique don't, largely because the parents are missing.
About six months after Gillespie arrived she started a pre-school with 25 children. Eleven of them were orphans. Then she opened an orphan resource center. She works mostly with girls. She says boys tend to have trade programs already established for them. Girls were caring for their younger brothers and sisters, but they didn't have any way to earn a living or learn to survive.
"They're learning how to sew, how to crochet, how to knot, how to cross-stitch. They've got health safety videos. We've gone and taught a number of safety classes. They're learning how to draw and write their names," she says.
They've learned how to make durable roofs and foster a garden. They are also earning money by making anatomical dolls that are later used to teach about HIV. Gillespie uses them, and so do other aid agencies.
Gillespie says a lot of people didn't understand how to use a condom or how you could get AIDS.
With 16 tribal languages and no comprehensive education system, most people don't speak Portuguese, or don't speak much. Putting a condom on a banana might mean something to Americans, but Gillespie says Mozambiqueans wanted to know why the banana needed a condom.
But they understand dolls.
"You'd like to think the dolls would come out the same. But they never really do. We have the sport doll, and we have the government woman doll," she says.
Gillespie teaches classes at the centers about AIDS, and business-owners hire her to teach the same classes in their facilities. AIDS is a touchy subject in most of Africa. And having a woman teach AIDS education can be tricky, but Gillespie says people really are learning.
"There's a respect that goes to a man moreso than to a woman," Gillespie says. "So because of the fact that we're doing it with dolls it becomes more like theatre, and it's a little more on the funny side than on the serious talk side. But in actuality we find that we think they learn better because they're more relaxed, and they're kinda humored. And even if they don't remember the words, they'll remember the dolls."
"We" is Gillespie and two other Mozambiquean women. Almost all of her funding comes from individual donations, largely through the Unity Church. She has one small grant from the Mozambiquean government.
But are her efforts really doing anything? Gillespie tells two stories. One is about Jonah, a boy who had a bicycle taken from him by the police. They said it wasn't licensed. The boy used the bike to get to school in town. He wants to be a teacher. So Gillespie is negotiating a deal with him. He can work at the center, and with his savings he can buy a new bike.
Another is the story of Jose. He died of malaria. She talked to his parents about putting mosquito nets up in their house.
"They didn't get a mosquito net. And he died," she says. "And we talked to them about do you think it would be a good idea to get nets for the other two." They said no, he just died. There was nothing to do.
This is a personal mission for Amy Gillespie. No matter how many times she faces an o que fazer, she says she has no plans to leave. But it is lonely and it is frustrating. She says her faith in God is strong, and she talks to him a lot.
"Cause there isn't anyone else to talk to. God speaks English I think," she says.
Gillespie says no one teaches you how to save lives, you just figure it out.