BY THE TIME you read this, the little girl in the hooded jacket is probably dead.
Sitting with her friends on a hot Zimbabwe morning, she needed the winter coat because AIDS had drained the warmth from her body. A group of Crofton residents on a trip to the African country met the girl a few weeks ago. They were told that she was in the final stages of the disease and would survive only a few days.
But in their hearts, the memory of her will never die.
She is among about 1.5 million people stricken by an epidemic ravaging Zimbabwe, where about a quarter of the adult population is said to be suffering from acquired immune deficiency syndrome and an estimated 900,000 children have been orphaned by the disease. And 56,000 children have the virus, according to figures from the United Nations AIDS program.
Without the means for medical treatment and with an economy beset by problems, the situation seems hopeless.
Recently, 17 members of Crofton's Community United Methodist Church took part in its third mission trip to Zimbabwe -- among their tasks building a roof for a local parsonage, painting a church and providing support for the pastors there.
But the group's primary focus was to help the children, particularly those suffering from AIDS or orphaned by the disease. In the months before they left, the group collected boxes of supplies, including bandages, antiseptic cream, underwear, shoes, crayons, pencils and scissors.
The group worked mainly in a rural village called Muchinjike. They met with the children, many of whom had never encountered a white person and delighted in touching the Americans' strange-colored skin, and in the games, songs and stories the visitors shared.
In the schoolroom, Ruella Barnes of Crofton distributed supplies from America. Many of the children had never seen a crayon and had to be shown how to hold it so they could draw. And many had never held a piece of paper. Barnes spent hours introducing the children to the wonder of drawing and coloring pictures.
The mission group had just finished painting a classroom when Danny Schwartz, a 15-year-old who recently moved with his family from Crofton to Delaware, painted a giraffe on the wall. Someone else added flowers. Within minutes, the plain walls were full of colorful, fun pictures.
The children loved it. And Danny became aware of the importance of the personal touch in mission work. Because he was there, something special happened that money would not have bought.
The favorite memory of the Rev. Chris Holmes, pastor of the Crofton church, happened shortly before the group left Zimbabwe. At a farewell ceremony, he was pleased to see people who had walked three hours from the village (and would have to walk back three hours that night).
While he was thanking one of the men for walking so far to say goodbye, Holmes learned that the man owned no shoes. He had borrowed a pair from someone in the village so he could make the trip. Holmes checked with other members of the mission group to find someone whose shoes might fit. And two of the men gave him the shoes right off their feet.
Holmes' father, the Rev. William Holmes, a retired Methodist minister from Silver Spring, also joined the mission trip. His most searing memory is of visiting a remote village where a woman was dying from AIDS. Despite the heat of the day, a fire burned inside the tiny house, but the stifling heat was barely enough to keep her body warm.
Surrounding her were three children -- one her own, and two who had been orphaned by AIDS. She had been caring for all three, but now they cared for her. They had no food. She had no medical care. The missionaries got her medical help and left food. And they promised to do what they could to continue helping.
The villagers have to walk a long distance for medical treatment, but clinics serving many communities might have little to offer beyond advice on care.
Some of the missionaries visited a clinic, bringing a bagful of supplies. They asked the nurse if the supplies would be useful. She smiled, turned around and opened the door of her cabinet. The shelves were bare.
Mark Chapin, a church member and social worker, looked forward to the mission trip to Africa, figuring he would leave behind the paperwork of his job and spend three weeks hammering nails and painting walls.
After staying in Muchinjike, he realized that its school and church were trying to help the children most affected by the AIDS epidemic. Some needed medical help. Most had poor nutrition. Some had no way to pay for school fees.
Chapin knew that the mission group's donations of money and supplies would last only a short time, but the village needs long-term solutions. Working with representatives from the school and the local church, Chapin and the other missionaries began developing an organization dedicated to helping deal with the problems of orphans in Muchinjike.