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How Charlize Theron Is Helping Eradicate AIDS

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Growing up in South Africa gave Charlize Theron a unique perspective on the many tragedies of the AIDS epidemic, and heavily influenced her decision to become involved in helping to eradicate it.

“AIDS definitely left a huge impact on me I think and how I view the quality of life and healthcare,” says Theron, 41, one of PEOPLE’s 25 Women Changing the World, featured in this week’s issue. “All of those things we take for granted on this side of the world and growing up in Africa, I was so bombarded by that every single day of my life and it caused a lot of fear.”

Which is why in 2007, Theron started the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project (CTAOP), which invests in African youth to keep themselves safe from HIV/AIDS. Since its inception, the actress says she’s personally observed positive changes among the youth she works with — though it’s still very much an uphill battle.

“From the time that we launched watching kids in sex ed classes and healthcare classes, they didn’t communicate,” Theron recalls. “It was taboo in that country to talk about things like safe sex or sex even, it was thought of as scandalous and you didn’t do that in Africa.”

Despite the amount of work and time it takes to make an impact and exact real change, which all organizations face in their early days, the actress will always remember one of CTAOP’s early successes — just seven months after they launched.

“I had a moment with a little boy, he was 16 years old and he had admitted in a question that he was gay and for me as a South African that is such a huge step,” says Theron. “When you see things like that you realize on a whole you are changing this kind of idea of what is okay to talk about and what’s not. A lot of the things that we’ve been taught are not okay to talk about have killed many many people and that’s definitely changing.”

Related: Jennifer Garner, Serena Williams, and Other Women Who Are Changing the World Share Words That Inspire Them

Theron, who is also a UN Messenger of Peace, says her work with CTAOP has given her back so much more than what she has put into it.

“It gives you an appreciation for life that is so invaluable, you can’t really put it into words,” she says. “There’s not a day in my life that I don’t [feel grateful for it] – and of course now that I have kids it’s kind of amplified for me. Before I had children and I started doing this work, there’s just a gratefulness that you get for how your life has turned out and how opportunities have landed for you and they just don’t land that way for everybody else.”

The actress adds that she hopes her children, son Jackson, 4, and daughter August, 1, will also want to take an ownership in helping others.

“It’s so surprising what Jackson can take in already,” Theron says of involving her kids in her work with CTAOP. “He’s been to South Africa with me, I haven’t taken him out on sites with me yet, I feel like he’s still a little bit too young and I really want to be able to explain it to him fully and have him comprehend it, but he’s close to there. But the normal conversations of driving to school and seeing homeless people, he’s asked that question and so that conversation has started with us, that we are interconnected, we are all here to take care of each other and there has to always be an appreciation and awareness that some people have better lives than others and I want him to feel like that his humanity is part of that duty, I think it is part of all of our duties but who am I to say that. I definitely want to raise my children to own a little bit of that, to take a little bit of ownership in being good to their fellow man.”