Thanksgiving is one of my favourite times of the year. There’s a chill in the air, the leaves are crunching under my boots and there is a perpetual smell of heavenpumpkin pie from the kitchen. I love getting a long weekend to go home, spend time with my family, and eat a physiologically-questionable amount of food.
Yet, I’m not really resting. The first rapid HIV testing event (Sexual Health Fair!) is coming in less than 3 weeks, there are midterms to be studied for, labs to prep and assignments to finish. I have to admit that I feel a little overwhelmed. As much as I love Thanksgiving, I find that I’m spending less time being thankful than just wishing that I would just get through it all.
I feel loomed over by all my checklists, matrices, schedules, meeting and notes…without really realizing how fortunate I truly am. Instead, I feel burdened and stressed…not exactly in a Thanksgiving mood! But then, at times of much-needed clarity, I take a moment to step back and ask myself, “why am I doing this?” It’s a good question to ask, and one I often forget to pose, instead being too lost in my work.
So, why am I involved with the S.T.O.P. HIV/AIDS project?
When I ask that question of the project, the answer is easy. The project is helping people, especially those in our own communities, through providing rapid HIV testing, education and treatment. Through these initiatives, the S.T.O.P. project is truly changing the face of the HIV epidemic in the province. This is a public health program which is actively and directing impacting communities and lives and we are very fortunate to live in a place that supports it. There are 33.4 million people around the world who are HIV+ but very very few have access to such great healthcare.
As for me? What is it that drives me to really dedicate myself to this project and specifically the Know Your Status campaign here at UBC? Well, this answer is a little longer. So bear with me….
This past summer, myself and the UBC S.T.O.P. HIV/AIDS Project team volunteered in the Downtown Eastside (DTES). I’ll admit I had a lot of preconceptions of the neighbourhood. I used to visit as a child when my mother would go shopping in Chinatown and I would clutch her hand with an iron grip, fearful of making eye contact with anyone else. Even as a teenager, I would commute through the neighbourhood on the bus, but I would look with a mixture of curiosity and pity out of the window, a barrier between myself – a transient visitor – and those people I was so unfamiliar with.
During the ‘What’s Your Status’ campaign, which promotes rapid HIV testing for the DTES community, I was given the task (with Linda) to go out in the community, handing out information cards and talking to residents. I went in with my usual positive enthusiasm and what I didn’t realize as naivety. I had this image of myself as a doing a “good thing” and giving a lot to the community, as if I were some “giver” and on a higher level from the people in the DTES community. I didn’t realize how much I would have given to me in return.
I walked into the crowds and I talked to people on the street. “Have you heard about the free rapid HIV testing?” “What do you know about HIV?” “Do you know your HIV status?” I was bursting with energy and genuinely curious to hear their responses, to really reach into this community I barely knew.
Yet, despite my rather “sales-pitchy” vibe, I soon began to engage in genuine conversations with people. Most were attentive and considerate, taking time to listen to me chatter away enthusiastically. Indeed, many were even sincerely interested in the testing and would give out good advice. “You should have the testing at the weekly rummage sale, lots of folks there”, “you should partner with the church, people go there lots”, “why should I get a test? Explain it to me better.” (they weren’t criticizing our explanation, but genuinely curious and wanting to know more). One woman even shared, “I don’t know how to explain to the guys. They all think only women can get it, and they won’t get tested. And I know that that’s dumb, but what can I do?” It was a troubling question indeed and we discussed it. I gave advice that I thought might be helpful, but she was able to provide more insight into the real-world barriers of outreach.
I had people offer to hand out pamphlets for me, people who shared with me stories about how they got tested and others who even gave me new insight through their explanations of why knowing your HIV status is important. My entire outlook on this community changed. Sure, there were people who yelled at me, others who clearly only wanted to hear about the $5 Army & Navy gift certificate and those who bolted as soon as I said “HIV”, but in general I found a community that didn’t need to be “saved” by me, but was genuinely wishing to be helped and healed.
I think I had a clearer vision of why I felt so strongly about the project. I hope to give back more to the DTES, but despite the differences in location, I gained new insights for the the project at UBC. I believe that through the Know Your Status campaign we can reach out to students who would benefit through knowing their HIV status, as well as being able to raise discussions around safe sex, STI testing and other “taboo” topics. The stigmas still exists.
This campaign is definitely not about “weeding out” those in the UBC community who are HIV-positive, but it’s about the broader message of health literacy, education and outreach. I wasn’t the person to “give” the people in the DTES good healthcare, but I was there to enable them to seek it themselves, and to take control of their own lives. It’s something I hope that myself and the project can facilitate here at UBC. It’s an opportunity to be aware of our HIV statuses and to be more involved in our health.
Now, in a rather convoluted answer, that’s my belief in the Know Your Status campaign. That’s what drives me to work hard for this project, because I realize at the heart of things, it’s something I can do to change lives, however indirectly. Maybe I’m an idealist, but it’s something I genuinely believe in. And, on a more direct scale, I’m benefiting so much through all the things I’ve learned and people I’ve talked to.
So, this Thanksgiving, what is something that I’m very thankful for? The opportunity to give back to something I truly and whole-heartedly believe in.