Taylor Capretz, 17, has spent time in her summers abroad in places like Nepal and Ghana helping with the HIV/AIDS epidemic. A segment of her documentary was a finalist at a U.N. film festival last year. (DON LEACH, Coastline Pilot / September 13, 2012)

Every time Taylor Capretz unpacks from her summer trip, it's bittersweet.

Not because she'll miss her friends at camp, tubing at the lake or a couple weeks in Cabo San Lucas. Taylor, 17, wishes she could stay longer in the places she visits — such as Nepal, Ghana and Brazil — where she volunteers for a month, aiming to learn more about the AIDS epidemic.

It all started when she and her parents attended a RAND Corporation conference on women. One of the speakers had a statistic that alarmed her: AIDS was the No. 1 killer of women and children worldwide.

"I was shocked," said Taylor, who lives in Top of the World. "I was like, 'Why don't I know that and why doesn't everyone else know that?'"

The curiosity sparked a goal within her to seek out the countries most affected by AIDS and see if she, a teenager from Laguna Beach, could identify some of the root issues.

It sounds ambitious, but so is Taylor.

Her first trip was to Nepal in 2010. About 64,000 people are living with AIDS there, according to UNAIDS data from 2009. It was Taylor's first time in an underdeveloped country and she said leaving Laguna for a country house outside Kathmandu with no clean water was a bit of a culture shock. Stray dogs, chickens and cows were a common sight on the roadways.

She worked at a rehabilitation center for mothers and children with HIV. Taylor said the language barrier made it difficult, but she still felt she connected with the patients.

"It's pretty amazing," she said. "You can still form a relationship with someone even though you can't speak the same language."

The Santa Margarita Catholic High School senior said it was difficult to see the limited resources in the country; it reminded her to not take her life for granted.

Her second trip was to Ghana. There, about 260,000 people are living with AIDS and 160,000 children are orphaned due to AIDS, according to UNAIDS.

Taylor worked in the AIDS ward of a hospital in Ghana, witnessing firsthand the debilitating effects of the disease. She helped medical students with vitals or helped change the diapers of paralyzed patients.

"I think that trip empowered me the most to make a change in the U.S.," she said. It also inspired her to want to become a doctor.

She said aspects of our lives, such as health and three meals a day, seem standard but in other countries, like Ghana and Nepal, they are far from the norm. People in underdeveloped nations don't have the means to secure a meal, let alone daily drugs necessary to keep them alive.

This summer Taylor visited Brazil and worked in a center for babies, children and adults living with HIV. There are anywhere from 460,000 to 810,000 people living with HIV in Brazil, UNAIDS reports.

Although each country taught her a different lesson, she said she noticed one common plight in each: discrimination.

"I feel like if there was more education on how AIDS was contracted — you don't get it from touching someone — discrimination wouldn't be such an issue," she said. "I think fear is what triggers the discrimination."

She said in Brazil she encountered it as she tried to form a bond with the patients. Because discrimination is commonplace, she said, people were scared to talk. They were cast aside by their friends and families and then are left to deal with the disease on their own.

She thinks it's important to teach kids how to have safe sex, prevent HIV/AIDS and educate the public on how it is to live with HIV/AIDS.

She's filmed all the trips for a three-part documentary, "Suffer Little Children." Her segment on Nepal, the only finished segment, was a finalist at the U.N. International Human Rights Film Festival last year.