"We wanted to get young people to talk about the things they could take control of to save their own lives," Charlize Theron tells PEOPLE

By Mary Green
December 21, 2019 10:00 AM
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By any standard, Charlize Theron has had a stellar year. Her performance in Bombshell has been deemed a knockout. She’s an Oscar frontrunner after receiving both Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations for best actress.

But in addition to her children, August, 4, and Jackson, 7, she says her work with the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Program keeps her grounded and focused. “It really is everything,” Theron, 44, tells PEOPLE. “You can see the effect that a little bit of work that we do here has for people who so desperately need it. That’s the thing that keeps me going because this work will break you down.”

Launched in 2007, CTAOP helps with AIDS education, prevention and support for those affected by the disease. The organization is primarily focused on South Africa, where the star was born and raised, and where 19 percent of the population between ages 15-49 are estimated to be HIV positive according to national statistics.

“We wanted to get young people to talk about the things they could take control of to save their own lives,” Theron says. “The thing about South Africa is, it’s very conservative when it comes to that kind of conversation.”

Charlize Theron
Credit: Courtesy Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Program
Charlize Theron
Credit: Courtesy Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Program

To begin, the group held classes at their first mobile clinic, but early resistance brought her to tears. “I remember sitting in our first class and everybody didn’t want to say a word,” she recalls. “They were embarrassed and had been told their whole lives this is a subject you don’t talk about. I remember that night and Ashlee George, our Executive Director, and I just cried. We were like, ‘This is never going to change. How are we going to get young people to engage?’ ”

Despite those early obstacles, in a short time, they saw progress. “We went back 18 months later and got in the same class with the same kids, and a 16-year-old boy raised his hand and asked if you could use a female condom to have gay sex with,” Theron says. “And it just blew us away that he was, first of all, that brave to talk in front of his peers, and to ask a question that could save his life.”

Progress has been made, but “the stigma is terrible,” says the Oscar winner. “I think the stigma is one of the biggest drivers when it comes to HIV unfortunately. I think we are slowly dismantling this idea that you’re somehow damaged goods if you come from a family where you’ve lost somebody close to you from HIV. There are these mistruths about what it means if you’re infected, or that somehow you should be ostracized. Young people are really trying to move the message forward.”

Since 2007, the organization has partnered with 10 local charities to amplify their work. One partnership, in particular, has allowed them to reach over two million teenagers, providing access to computers and phones for them to safely ask questions.

Charlize Theron
Credit: Courtesy Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Program

And this year, CTAOP launched a scholarship program for kids with strong potential, but who simply don’t have the means to continue their education. George recalls the young woman who inspired it, at a summit to address the problems facing young women.

“This young woman stood up and said, ‘I’m sick of waiting. I’m not going to wait for next month or next week. I’m getting up tomorrow and I’m going to work on this.’ Charlize and everyone on that trip said, ‘What are we doing for young leaders like her? We don’t know where she’s going, but we know it’s going to be amazing, and she’s going to create change for good. How do we invest in those leaders?’ That moment gave birth to our scholarship program,” George says.

“Our program partners nominate young leaders, and we provide full scholarships for tertiary education (college) in any area of study,” she adds. “The only commitment we ask of them is that they have some sort of community project that they will do during their years of study. We just had our first cohort (class) of scholars this year. This month we interview our next cohort of scholars.”

Charlize Theron
Credit: Courtesy Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Program

George says watching Theron interact with the kids has been “a beautiful thing to watch. The connection she has with them is incredible. Despite the age difference, despite the fact she hasn’t lived in South Africa in many years, they connect with her on a different level — just being proudly South African. It’s so natural for her. And many of them don’t know who she is.”

Theron says got this activist inspiration from her mom, Gerda, and it’s a legacy she plans to pass on her to kids. “This is how I was taught,” she says. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Her passion for it helps keep her grounded during a busy awards season. “Listen, I’ve had an incredible few [months],” she says. “I feel ridiculously spoiled. It makes it even more special to be able to give back.”