Staying positive: #28storiesofgiving

Michael Rebuyas - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - We grew up listening to stories about a plague affecting millions of people throughout the globe, one that unwaveringly claims scores of lives every year without fail.

The first cases were reported in Los Angeles in the early part of the 1980s – so the story goes – claiming the lives of five men. Similar cases then emerged in neighboring states and cities, with the number of casualties steadily increasing, leaving only grief in its wake.

By the latter part of that year, it was given a name that stuck: HIV/AIDS. And with this was born a hatred, fear and stigma towards the afflicted.

This is the story we grew up with, but more compelling and positive stories have since unraveled.

Let’s hear it from Ronivin Pagtakhan.

For three years now, Vinn, as he prefers to be called, has been running Love Yourself Inc., a volunteer organization whose advocacy is to promote HIV awareness, education and prevention among youth and the LGBT community.

The group provides free testing and counseling for people who suspect that they may be HIV-positive.

A staggering 4,500 cases of HIV were recorded in 2013. Of this number, 28 percent come from the 15-24 age brackets. Interestingly, 25 percent of the cases involve males.

This is a drastic shift, Vinn says, since commercial sex workers and overseas workers were those primarily affected during the virus’ early run in the Philippines in 1984.

Vinn points to the lack of proper sexual education as the main driving force behind the pandemic.

Here in the country, Vinn says, talking about sex is more often than not still discouraged.

“When young people talk about sex, they get the notion that it is bad. Young people aren’t becoming exposed to things that they should know,” he says, adding that this leads to risky behavior.

This is where Love Yourself, an advocacy born in cyberspace, comes in.

According to Vinn, the decision to employ social media stemmed from the realization that scare tactics to persuade people to get screened was not working, especially since the affected segment is no longer the same population the 20-year-old campaigns were designed for.

Despite the all-out efforts, however, the spike in infections continues, and current statistics show an average of nine people getting infected every day.

On the other hand, Love Yourself’s advocacy of spreading the optimistic side of HIV awareness and education is clearly paying off.

At present, its clinic in Malate services an average of 700 clients a month – an exponential growth compared to the initial clientele of 10 per month when they started.

“I take it as a double-edged sword,” Vinn says. “Yes, more people are getting diagnosed but it also means that a lot more are accessing the screenings,” he adds.

“HIV is just like diabetes or hypertension. You may have it for the rest of your life. There is no cure right now but treatment is available. Medicine is free when you need it. The important thing is to have yourself checked,” he reiterates.

At the very heart of Love Yourself, according to Vinn, are its volunteers, who now number 444 – a far cry from the original six during the advocacy’s infancy.

Volunteers come from different backgrounds. Most of them are employed individuals while some are still students, adding that aside from the medical staff under their employment, none of the volunteers get paid for their time and efforts.

“It’s all 100-percent volunteer work,” Vinn shares.

Love Yourself is partnered with both the Department of Health and the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine, both of which are also thinking of ways to curb the rising number of infected individuals.

“They handle the logistics. We provide the manpower,” he explains.

Despite having partnerships with other organizations, however, promoting their advocacy is still, for the most part, a herculean task, noting that it takes a certain dose of passion and drive to do the things the organization does for the community.

Sometimes, Vinn says, people ask what he or the volunteers gain from the advocacy, to which he replies: “Financially, nothing. But it’s very rewarding, knowing that you are helping an entire community,” he qualifies, adding that material gain was never a driving force for the group.

Vinn adds that although they do receive help from other organizations and from other communities, the advocacy still needs help, especially since it now aims to broaden its impact to the community in terms of service.

It’s a story that we know all too well: That there is a plague claiming millions of lives; that the shadow of death hangs above our heads and that there is no escape and we should be afraid.

But more compelling and more positive stories have emerged from the myth – stories of bravery, strength and resilience.

Infection rates remain and the specter of death hovers, but the people at Love Yourself say there is still hope.

(Editor’s Note: The Philippine STAR’s #28StoriesOfGiving is a campaign that turns the spotlight on 28 inspiring stories of people and organizations who devote their lives to helping themselves or others. Everyone is encouraged to post or “tweet” a message of support with the hashtag, #28StoriesOfGiving. For every post, P5.00 will be added to The STAR’s existing ‘give back’ anniversary fund. For comments and suggestions to #28storiesofgiving, email [email protected] follow @philippinestar on Twitter or visit The Philippine Star’s page on Facebook.)

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