MANILA, Philippines?Having failed to pass the medical tests for a new job in Saudi Arabia, Juan (not his real name) came home last March to confront a painful truth: He is positive for the human immuno-deficiency virus (HIV).
His heart was crushed, his faith shattered. He thought it was the end of his dreams. He thought his life was ended at 24.
He found out that he was wrong.
?There is life after what happened,? said Juan who has found new purpose as a member of the Bacolod chapter of the Kabataang Gabay sa Positibong Pamumuhay (KGPP), one of the Ten Accomplished Youth Organizations (TAYO) for 2008.
The KGPP was cited for its project to promote awareness about the disease as well as provide a support group for its 18 members living with HIV, including Juan.
?It is very important to have a support group because you can talk to them and express what you feel, what you think about life?things you cannot talk about even with your family?and they will understand,? Juan said.
He is now one of the group?s most active members, speaking in various forums to spread awareness about the disease and minimize discrimination.
It was also Juan who presented the KGPP project during the national judging for the TAYO awards.
?I am here in front (of you) with the firm conviction that even an HIV positive individual can do something to bring a positive change in the lives of others,? he said in his presentation.
The project, named ?Each One, Reach One, Teach One: Leadership for Young People Living with and Affected by HIV,? is three-pronged: educate children about their rights and risks; reach out to HIV carriers through hospital and home visits, counseling and medical support; and educate HIV carriers to ?better understand and cope with the stigma and discrimination.?
They live normal lives
In an e-mail message, KGPP president and founder John Piermont Montilla stressed that people with HIV should not be labeled ?victims? nor should they be described as ?suffering from HIV.?
?They do not suffer. They still live normal lives,? said Montilla.
It was not an easy process for him, said Juan. He did not know who to talk with and what to say. Could he ever get a job again? Could he face other people?
?I felt hopeless. I felt like my life would be going to waste,? said Juan, who contracted the disease from a partner.
Though he considered himself fortunate in having a supportive family, he knew his parents were also in pain: ?They did not say so, but I know they were hurting.?
Since its establishment in December 2006, the KGPP in Bacolod City has established links with government and private agencies, as well as with the Corazon Locsin Montelibano Memorial Regional Hospital where Juan tested positive for HIV. The hospital endorsed his case to the KGPP.
?I was apprehensive at first. I did not know who they were. I did not know how they would think about me,? Juan said.
His fears proved wrong after a few meetings with the group.
?I felt I was in a good group,? he said. He found himself getting more involved in the KGPP and regaining his self-respect in the process.
?I found the courage to face students during symposiums, one thing that I never thought I could do again,? he said.
Juan worked as a teacher in South Korea for two years. He transferred to Saudi Arabia to work as an accountant. It was there that he failed the medical tests and discovered that he was infected with HIV.
?I want to encourage other people [with HIV] not to hide. I want them to see my example,? Juan said.
?I have accepted what happened. Life must go on. Just do what good things you can still do,? he added.
The project, which the KGPP also presented at the International AIDS Conference in Mexico City last August, has brought together not only people with HIV in Western Visayas, but also their children and family members.
Juan said that many members with HIV are overseas workers like him. Some are wives of overseas workers.
?I empathize with them [the wives]. Their acceptance is slow. They ask themselves, why did this happen when they have been faithful,? Juan said.
Families of people with HIV also need support as they are also victims of discrimination once neighbors learn that a relative is infected.
The group is also able to help with the costly medication for its members with HIV through the grants it receives from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, the United Nations Children?s Fund and the Philippine National AIDS Council.
Juan said the KGPP can also help people who suspect they may have acquired the virus to take the test.
Echoing the warnings from international agencies, he said the actual number of people with HIV in the Philippines could be much higher that is reported largely because of the fear of being discriminated against that deters carriers from coming out.
The Department of Health says there are 8,600 people with HIV in the country.
The KGPP chapter in Bacolod City is one of the five chapters of the parent organization established in Iloilo City in 1998, which started out as a group to rescue and protect sexually exploited children. It won a TAYO award in 2003.
TAYO started giving recognition to what it considers to be excellent projects of youth organizations in 2002. It is open to all groups whose members and leaders are 15 to 30 years old. More than 80 groups joined the competition this year.
The following groups also won the TAYO award for 2008: Dynamic Teen Company, Cavite City; Society of Scholars and Grantees, Benguet State University; UP Cebu SEALNet Entrepreneurs? Club, UP High School Cebu; Youth Advocates Through Theater Arts, Dumaguete City; 505 Disaster Rescuers for Emergencies;
Assistance and Management Inc., Kidapawan, North Cotabato; Lamlifew 4-H Club, Sarangani; School of Business and Management Student Council, Xavier University-Ateneo de Cagayan, Cagayan de Oro City; Jose Rizal University-Computer Society, Mandaluyong City; and Mu Sigma Phi Fraternity, UP Manila.
The 10 organizations received their awards last Dec. 16 and each got a P50,000 cash grant for their projects.
Montilla said his group also supports the reproductive health bill pending in Congress which promotes sex education and the use of artificial contraceptives.
?Young people engage in risky behaviors not because of the reproductive health bill or sex education measures but because they are robbed of their right to [have access to] accurate information about sex, sexuality and reproductive health,? Montilla said.
The social stigma attached to people with HIV is hard to bear, said Juan.
?There are instances when someone would stay away from me because of my disease,? he said while still dreaming that one day he might be able to hold a full-time job again.
But in his prayers, Juan remains grateful: ?I am thankful that despite my disease, I feel good about life.?