My story begins during the winter of 1993/94 when my partner of 10 years was hospitalized several times with pneumonia. When he was tested and found to be HIV positive, this led to my testing and diagnosis in May 1994. My partner's health deteriorated rapidly until his death in May 1995, whereas I have maintained excellent health to date without any opportunistic infections. Both he and I shared a passion for foreign travel and experiencing different cultures. Early on, I decided that HIV would not be something that would define me as an individual. I was determined to maintain a sense of humour and a positive outlook on life realizing the importance of love and living each day to the fullest without regrets.
I worked full-time until my retirement last year without the need to disclose that I was living with a disability. Even so, I have always realized the importance of advocating for HIV-positive persons in the workplace because so many individuals are closeted for fear of discrimination and the resulting stigma. This is also one of the reasons for my desire to serve openly and internationally as an HIV-positive gay man. Asserting myself as an HIV-positive person in the world will make me stronger as a long-term survivor and will help me to blossom on a personal level knowing that my HIV status can be used in a truly positive light. This is reflected in the Volunteer Positive logo: Positive, Powerful, Visible. By empowering myself, my desire is to empower others who are interested in international service and hopefully to lessen the stigma that HIV-positive persons experience when working abroad.
My journey with Volunteer Positive started with my application in July 2011 to join the inaugural group of HIV-infected or affected volunteers to serve in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in January 2012. Although having travelled extensively, this would be my first trip to Southeast Asia and I would be able to develop an appreciation of Thai culture in their environment. Through international service with an HIV-focused organization, I would gain a unique perspective by participating in hands-on work alongside Thai community members in solidarity as peers, to educate and to advocate on their behalf.
While submitting the additional required documentation to support my application and as the weeks and months passed, my excitement gradually increased. I would be meeting others living with or affected by HIV who shared a desire for international service in a foreign HIV-positive community. Together we would be making a positive difference in the world, making it a better place for us and others and also in memory of those whose memory we held dear to us.
In addition to the two and a half weeks of volunteer service in Chiang Mai, I had planned to spend another 10 days in Thailand after the program ended. I scheduled appointments with my physician, naturopath, and travel clinic to ensure I was fully prepared for the trip. As my departure date approached, I have to admit there was some anxiety because of the daunting task of packing for a month and including all the necessary HIV medications and supplements that I take on a daily basis. In hindsight there was no need for this anxiety since my carry-on luggage was not opened even once at the four airport security checkpoints between Toronto and Chiang Mai.
Upon arrival in Chiang Mai, it was comforting to finally meet Carlton Rounds, founder and director of Volunteer Positive as well as the other nine volunteers. The initial four days of the program included an educational component of Thai culture, local sexuality issues and Buddhist religion.
I had been advised of my volunteer placement with the non-governmental organization (NGO), Grandma Cares, a couple weeks prior to my departure from home. Initially I had wondered how beneficial a two-week placement would be but as I write this after a couple days into the placement, I realize my service will definitely be well-spent. The mission of Grandma Cares is to give the children of Chiang Mai who have been orphaned by HIV/AIDS the chance to lead healthy and successful lives in their own communities, in hope that by doing so, the children will contribute to Thai society.
In such a short time here, I have learned so much about how an NGO works, especially one dedicated to quality of life. I have already met and worked with affected Thai children in a school setting and I have also learned a great deal from the experiences shared by my fellow volunteers and friends.
As I sit here with singing and music echoing from a nearby Thai festival, I realize that nothing is more important that being present in the here and now and to be living the experience of international service, and that an experience specifically focused on HIV-related issues is even more rewarding than I had originally anticipated.