When she was new at AID FOR AIDS International (AFAI) back in 2008, Liliana Velásquez was the recipient of some words of wisdom from executive director Jesus Aguais.
"We were coming out of the building where I had been photographing our board members at a cocktail reception," recalls the manager of AFAI's marketing and recycling programs. "And Jesus turned to me and said, 'When you leave here one day, you are going to find yourself changed forever. You're going to see the world, and all the people in that world, in a whole new way.'"
Soon enough, Liliana came to see what Jesus was talking about. In a single day on the job, she would go from strategic marketing meetings with AFAI's corporate partners to addressing ragtag groups of recovering drug addicts living with HIV on the fringes of New York's meanest streets. The aim: to get them to consider donating their unused and unexpired medicine to the recycling program, rather than selling it on the street or throwing it away.
"At first, it was scary," she admits. "I had never really come face to face with people at the bottom of the social ladder. But, gradually, I came to understand that the differences in wealth and table manners are only skin deep. Under the skin, we are all the same. That may not seem like an especially profound concept, but I think that knowledge of the oneness of humanity is the greatest gift I've received from working here."
That knowledge is essential in the performance of her job as Recycling Program and Marketing Manager, where Liliana is currently spearheading the upcoming nationwide medicine donation drive, to be held August 18-25. As always, Liliana finds herself interacting with a large cross-section of the HIV community -- individual donors, local AIDS organizations, physicians and health clinics, and corporations. She manages to segue smoothly among all these constituencies, delivering one powerful, but simple message: recycling saves lives.
"The key is to stay focused on the mission, which is to increase donations of antiretroviral medication," she says. "That entails first creating awareness of our program in the community and, once that awareness exists, expanding our medicine collection network across the country."
During her tenure in her job at AFAI, Liliana has helped expand the number of drop-off collection points to 17, covering much of the East Coast and parts of the South and Midwest. She hopes the August campaign will encourage more organizations to sign on to the AFAI collection network.
Her role as marketing manager dovetails neatly with the recycling work, as it also involves creating awareness in the community. Her marketing duties include managing the AFAI Website; designing all of AFAI's external communications (newsletters, flyers, t-shirts, etc.); and serving as unofficial staff photographer. Liliana has represented AFAI at a number of local and national events such as the U.S. Conference on HIV in San Francisco two years ago. You can still hear the pride in her voice when she recalls that experience.
Liliana emigrated to America from her native Colombia in 2002, after earning a Bachelor's Degree in marketing and advertising and working for several years in banking. Prior to joining AFAI as an intern, she worked as a freelance graphic designer in New York, and took courses on Graphic Design and Media at New York University and the School of Visual Arts.
She continues to hone both her graphics and people skills, and sees the two skill sets as complementary. "It's all about communication," she insists. "Taking your talents and using them to help people."
Jesus Aguais says the message he imparted to Liliana all those years ago is the same one he has given to many others who have passed through AFAI's offices over the past 15 years.
"Liliana really gets it," says Jesus. "She understands what connects us all to one another. And that's why she's so good at connecting with people."