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Dan - The second week was amazing and I am going back!

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Second week of volunteering in Chiang Mai

The first week of volunteering went by quickly!  One of the Thai volunteers at the agency asked if I would go with him on Saturday to a hospital in the area, to represent the agency in the International Children's Day activities that were being held there.  We started out early that day and got to the hospital around 9:00 am.  There were lots of people there, probably at least 2,000, mostly children with their parents.  It was like an outdoor carnival in an open area next to the hospital.  My agency had a game booth and handed out prizes to the children that played.  We also gave out information on HIV.  It was a fun day!

On Sunday, our group of volunteers went to the elephant sanctuary.  We learned about elephants and their role in Thai culture and history.  We also got to feed them and ride them.  We rode the elephants for about an hour, and bathed them in the river afterwards.  It was a great experience, and they're really not that difficult to ride! 

Now came the final week of my volunteering, and there was sort of a sense of urgency on my host agency's part to take advantage of the time that I had left with them.  In the beginning of the week I helped analyze their website visits and assisted them in putting that information into their monthly report.  Their website host evidently is an English speaking company because all data was in English.  There is only one staff person there that had the ability to read the information on the website administrator's web page.  I was able to help them get the report done more quickly that they usually do on their own.  

Monday night I went to dinner with Carlton and two other volunteers.  We were meeting the editor of Out Thailand magazine.  He was doing a story on our program and wanted to get some inside information from us.  He's an expat from England I think, and I enjoyed meeting him.  He was very appreciative of our spending time with him, and he turned out to be a pretty fun guy.  He sure had some good suggestions on where to go for whatever nightlife you were looking for! 

On Tuesday, the agency I was volunteering for asked me to write a letter in English describing the work it did in the community and asking for donations to help further its mission.   They wanted to give this letter to English speaking owners of gay oriented businesses in the Chiang Mai area.   So by the end of the day I had a letter written that met their approval.  They printed a few to distribute the following day to some businesses that they had identified.  I'm very interested in hearing what the response was like from the businesses.  I'll follow up with them to see if they are getting any donations. 

On Wednesday, I was asked to help the staff think of a new name for the agency.  According to them, the current name was "too gay" and they were concerned that some MSM were avoiding using the agency's resources because of the name.  We really spent a lot of time discussing this issue.  By Friday, we had come up with a list of a few possibilities.  I don't know what new name they will choose, if any.

We had a huge party with all the volunteers and staff of all of the host agencies on Friday night.  Lots of good food and entertainment.   It was a great way to connect with everyone for one last time before we said goodbye and to celebrate all that we had accomplished.  There are several people that I will keep in touch with in the future.  As I write this summary, I am making plans to return.  My experiences with Volunteer Positive, my host agency, and the Thai people that I met were incredible.  I can't wait to go back!  avHHHHHH kk

Getting There From Here - Part 1

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David B.

Inaugural Program Volunteer


Getting There From Here

 

I'd like to preface my blog entry by saying that I have been blessed in more ways the first week of service than I have in my entire 47 years of life. I'd also like to state that I'm writing this, (the first of 2 blogs that was supposed to be done immediately after my first week of service here in Chiang Mai), not after the first week but on Thursday evening, 2 and a half weeks into this experience, the night before my official last day of service. That alone will tell you just how busy I've been here.

 

In September of this year, (3 months recently single), I decided that I wanted to celebrate my 47th birthday by taking 2 weeks for myself and traveling to Shanghai, where I would join forces and meet one of my favorite friends in the world, David Stewart. David, a very dear friend who I initially met in NYC 15 years ago happens to live in Shanghai now and is singularly responsible for introducing Southeast Asia to my life in a very personal way over 10 years ago.

 

The first stop on this particular celebratory birthday trip started by meeting David in Shanghai, from there we traveled to Cambodia, Laos, Bangkok and eventually ended up back in Shanghai for the last part of my holiday... my celebration of life.

 

Somewhere along the way, a trigger tripped in my head, my heart, and my soul. Perhaps it was seeing firsthand how people in these countries lived with so much less than I but appeared so much happier and full-filled than I've ever felt.  The poverty, disease, and civil wars had visibly destroyed much of their lives, their lands, and often their familial pasts but it did not destroy their spirit. I began to see this world in a different light and I began to see myself as an integral part of this world. No longer was I just someone coasting along surviving off and breathing the sickening air of the high-end corporate fashion world of New York City. I saw myself as someone who could, someone who should participate, and someone who must contribute. It was my time to give back.

 

As my departure from Shanghai loomed, I remembered that months earlier I had checked out a Facebook post from a friend about a new organization called Volunteer Positive that was planning on doing their inaugural trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand in January of 2012. Not sure of when the deadline for application submission was, I figured that I'd just wait until I got back to my home in NYC before following up on this threat to my own completely comfortable albeit hand-to-mouth existence. After all, it was all really just talk, right? I could follow my standard pattern of behavior, have an "epiphany" while in some far off land and then promptly forget it after a week back home and back in my groove. I'm a pro at that; after all I've been doing it practically my whole adult life. If you know anything about Virgo's, we're brilliant making big plans, creating patterns to follow, and the best way to follow them.

 

Normally, that would have been the case, but when I returned to my home and looked up this "Volunteer Positive" thing, I noticed that I had exactly 2 days to get my application submission completed and sent in. Perfect, I told myself, now I really had a reason to say, "Well, I can't get all of this together in 2 days, I've never done any volunteer service, what the hell do I have to offer?" But somehow, somewhere, a flicker of that truth that I had experienced in my recent travels resurfaced and grabbed a hold of me. I told myself that this could be a once in a lifetime opportunity, a fork in the road. I could either go back to the life I knew, (a life that included more and more frequent visions of escaping NYC) or I could throw myself into the ring, do what I said I would do, give back.

 

Reference letters requested, application submitted on time, I jumped back into my life in NYC. Work, exercise, walk the dog, pay the bills, rinse and repeat.

 

Not long afterward, I received word from Volunteer Positive Executive Director/Founder Carlton Rounds that my life was about to change. Apparently, I did have something to offer, I was asked to be a part of the inaugural trip to Chiang Mai.

 

For the next couple of months, fundraising became my obsession. This was the first of many bridges I would have to cross on this new path. Up until this point, I had only disclosed my HIV status to a very close circle of friends, people I knew I could entrust with this very personal information. I had even kept this information from my family, not so much out of fear, more so from the fact that I didn't feel as though it was anyone's business or concern. How could I ask for people to donate to my Volunteer Positive experience if I couldn't be open and upfront about my own status?

 

Fortunately for me, my roommate and former partner is a well-known outspoken individual in the non-profit LGBT, Poz, POC sector who was more than willing to give me pointers on how to best raise funds. Combining a method made popular by KickStater.com with an email blast, a Facebook blast and direct calling, within the first month I had raised 2/3's of the funds needed to comfortably travel to Chiang Mai for my placement. All individuals who have contributed to my volunteer experience would receive a hand-printed postcard with an on-site "sketch" on the back of the post card. Each donor would also receive new prints that would be created from on-site drawings done in Chiang Mai.

 

I received donations from individuals who I had never expected to. I had received donations from former hometown friends, friends from all of the cities I've previously lived in and donations from new friends I had only made within the past year. People understood exactly what it was I was trying to do and they supported me however they could. Hell. My mom even bought me new luggage the weekend of Christmas while I was home for the holidays and decided it was time to tell her about my status.

 

By the time January 4th came around, I was physically prepared in every possible way. I had my plane tickets, my meds, my new luggage, my art supplies were packed, and I was ready to go. And then I started to really think about all of the unknowns. What was to be expected of me? What would I really be doing? Would I really be okay there? Damn inner dialogue was at it again working it's magic.

 

With one final call to our fearless leader Carlton, all doubt vanished. What did he say, you ask?

 

"Just Be Present".

 

I was ready to go, ready to let it happen.

Looking Back On My Service In Thailand - Part 2

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Zaidi M 

From Malaysia

Part 2 of BLOG


It has been almost a month since I left Chiang Mai. Almost a month ago, I was surrounded by a wonderful group of people. These are people who wanted to change the world. These are people who wanted to be seen and heard. These are people who survived the dark age of HIV/AIDS.

Before I go on rambling endlessly, I wanted the readers to know that I will steer my blog away from the wonderfulness of Chiang Mai, Thailand; it's exotic beautiful temples and arts, it's fresh delicious fruits and salads, it's mouth-watering green chicken curries and it's vibrant yet complex culture. I will focus my ramblings towards what I discovered during my short tenure with Volunteer Positive and perhaps focus on what I was involved with at my placement, Grandma Cares Partnership Program. I reckon this is an opportunity for me to be heard.

So who are these people, these volunteers I grew to know? They are a group of people who were part of an inaugural international service program conducted by Volunteer Positive. These people passed and lived through the stage where they were possibly at the edge of life, some of them a few times, living through the stage where they lost their partners, friends and family due to AIDS. Yet, these people still surviving and still living.

How can one comprehend the feeling, 20 years later waking up in the morning still alive, still able to breathe the air and still able to do what the 'normal' people do when they knew at one stage of their life that others with the same blood borne disease passed. I considered this group of people to be the catalyst - a powerful change agent. This is a group of openly HIV positive international volunteer who flew across the world to be in Chiang Mai to be in the bigger and larger community wanting to be seen and heard.

But the questions were; Is it because they see this program as an opportunity to be able to give back outside their comfort community because of what's happening within? Or is it because they wanted to be part of a movement that helps other who shared one common illness in other part of the world, to be able to propel the message broadly that you can actually live longer and able to contribute in some ways?

As I explored these questions, it makes me think where I fit in as I amalgamated myself with the group. Coming from a different culture, religious and education background and being the only person affected and not infected the disease, I was constantly seeking answers within. How can I connect with this group because I didn't go through the same thing that they went through - essentially living with the virus. My idea of me living with the virus may be rejected as I am not 'original' and I can be considered as the outsider with my sero-discordant status. It should not and did not hinder my inclusion within the community. These notions Eventually I realized how  I did blend in with this group of people.

I realized my apprehensions were baseless, that I put myself in the internal stigmatization status quo; thinking how me being affected (in regard to myself within this group) and the larger public perception being around people living with HIV. It is like weighing the notion that I wanted to be part of this group yet wanted to be part of the public at the same time but not receiving negative consequences. How could I be in both places at the same time?

After a long thoughtful internal processing within, I recognized that I make myself a jerk out of nowhere. I realized that their suffering affected me as I learned more about the social disconnection and invisibility of their voices within the larger community. Imagine being in a place where being an HIV positive you are treated like you are from the lowest caste. Imagine being in a place where even with Government supports to medications, being HIV positive takes away your right to raise your hands and voices. I realized that this is a huge stepping stone for people living with HIV to be in the front line and claim their sense of agency in the world.

Volunteer Positive is a catalyst.

Being Positive...Sharing positively!

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Jutatip Dechaboon (Ann)
Thai Program Coordinator for Volunteer Positive

(In her own words, English being her second language.)

First time, before I got to know the Volunteer Positive project, I was so tired from working in HIV and AIDS field. As a person who is also living with HIV, I felt like we have not achieved yet on against stigma and discrimination even though it sounds like Thailand has been successful on access to treatment. My HIV positive friends at local level are still facing all kind forms of stigma and discrimination in their daily lives which cause to self-stigma, decreasing self-esteem and definitely affect to the quality of lives.

When I was introduced to Carlton Rounds, the Executive Director and Founder of the Volunteer Positive organization, I felt something was sparkling inside. I told myself that it could be a time to 'do' some more things to eradicate stigma and discrimination which starting from our own selves. So, I committed to be a local liaison for the Volunteer Positive as a pilot project in Chiangmai, Thailand.

Even I have almost 10 years experience in this field, but it didn't make me feel strong confident in the role. I had so many things to concern with either the ensuring that they both the Volunteers and my local partner friends can get the most benefits from this project or how I can move it on smoothly as this was my first time working on some logistic tasks. It was quite a big challenge to me.

My big concern was a language barrier. There were two from seven organizations who never had a foreign volunteer before and these two organizations are mostly running by HIV positive friends. How I could extremely support them? What about other organizations whose may need  my support too? And if I fully supported them, how I could manage other parts of the project at the same time? Oh my! So many issues was floating in my mind.

I closed my eyes and thought...

Ah, yes! I have the greatest Helper, my beloved God.

I ended up with prayer every days, every times that the issues bothered me.

Yes, It's my personal believe but it did really work to me, especially it made this hot-temper person to be more calm and stable in this situation.

Times flied, the placement period came, so many events went so fast. We were at the last event for the project.

One of many results came to surprise me because two organizations I really concerned with became who were most appreciated with having the volunteers!

Lots of tears during the last event, I could feel so much love among the relationship that would bring us more commitment even we are in different places.

This has proved my belief that HIV is not only about work but lives as well.

Assisting Women in the Field

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Volunteer Positive, an international service organization comprised of people living with and affected by HIV, has assembled its first group of volunteers. The group is in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Here are their stories of working with sex workers, at-risk youth, children orphaned by HIV and other groups.

By Cate G.

My name is Cate and I am a 54 yrs. old woman living with HIV for the past 22yrs.  I was compelled to join Volunteer Positive's inaugural trip to Thailand after reading the July/August issue of POZ magazine.  In it, Carlton Rounds, the executive director and founder of Volunteer Positive, spoke so eloquently about HIV long-term survivors stepping out of their comfort zone, putting their meds in their pockets, taking that next step, whatever that next step should be and becoming international caregivers instead of care receivers.  I felt as if he was speaking directly to me. 

I have been involved with many volunteer organizations over the past number of years including a speakers' bureau to raise awareness about HIV and fight stigma so this seemed like a good match for me.  Plus, I love to travel and I hadn't traveled in quite a long time.  I just put one foot in front of the other and, little by slowly, I submitted my application wondering the whole time who was this courageous person.  I sure didn't feel brave.  I'm more the type that needs to be thrown off the dock to learn how to swim.  Each step of the way seemed huge, but in reality it was not that difficult. 

To me the most daunting aspect was the fundraising.  I'm not one who likes the limelight so putting myself out there in the media and asking for donations did not come easily. Regardless, I was determined to follow through once I began the process and people were very generous once learning about the mission of Volunteer Positive. I am probably more shocked than anyone that I am actually sitting here right now.  I didn't know anyone else volunteering or what exactly I would be doing until shortly before my arrival, but it intrigued me nonetheless.

Arriving in Chiang Mai and meeting the others on this journey was like meeting distant relatives for the first time.  I felt an immediate familial bond with each and every member.  I was nervous, but as we shared our, thoughts, feelings and apprehensions with one another my stress was alleviated. 

The next big step was meeting the NGO I was being placed with, EMPOWER.  Empower is a strong vibrant, self-determined organization of sex workers who support one another to better their lives and fight for human rights of all.  It is a place where sex workers can come to meet for friendship, and to share their daily experiences and ideas about working, dealing with health issues, safer sex, HIV/AIDS, survival and new opportunities.  

They offer computer training, Thai and English classes non-formal education study, and counseling.  Most of my time at Empower is spent giving English class to a number of Thai women and mingling and getting to know the women and how Empower operates.  I am in awe of all they do.  They have a radio show on a few times a week, they have published several books and will soon be premiering a short film.  

They remind me a great deal of my strong, vibrant, powerful woman's network I've made in AA.  Women best knowing how to support and enrich one another to move in a positive direction in their lives.  Even with the language barrier I feel among friends while at EMPOWER.  It does feel a bit strange to be the only woman among the Volunteer Positive members, but yet I spend my whole day supporting and assisting women in the field.  I hope in the future more women decide to be a part of the volunteers traveling to other parts of the world.  We can and do make a difference as exemplified in EMPOWER.

The first week has been very intense for me with some jet lag, also being in a new country, new culture, new food(fantastic), new friends.  I have to admit I am experiencing quite a bit of fatigue.  It has been a lot to take in in such a short time.  I am still wondering what I am doing here sometimes and question how I may be more useful to Empower.

Many of the things I worried about proved to be unfounded.  No luggage was lost, it's relatively easy to make yourself understood and to travel around.  The food is delicious and safe to eat.  I have not experienced any health issues.  The restroom facilities were similar to our own back home in most places.  The mosquitos are no worse, nothing a good repellent can't handle.  One obstacle I did face was withdrawing bank with my debit/credit card.  My card did not work internationally, although I was led to believe it would.  Just make sure you check with your U.S. bank if planning to travel before you leave.  I ended up receiving money through Western Union which is a very simple and efficient way to send money.

Chiang Mai is a wonderful mix of new and old.  The city has over 90 gorgeous temples and the monks are frequently seen walking around, yet the city is full of tuk-tuks and motorbikes that do not seem to obey any traffic laws.  The vegetation is lush and birdsong and fountains can still be heard even amongst the chaos of the street life. One special highlight so far was the 2 hr Thai body massage.  It was heavenly! 

Volunteer Positive keeps us very busy, but they take good care of us while here and have introduced us to some fascinating people that as a tourist I would not have had the opportunity to meet.  Their knowledge and insights into Thai culture, customs and sexuality have been extremely helpful.

--

For more information about Volunteer Positive, click here.

I Can Be Out and Open

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Volunteer Positive, an international service organization comprised of people living with and affected by HIV, has assembled its first group of volunteers. The group is in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Here are their stories of working with sex workers, at-risk youth, children orphaned by HIV and other groups.


By Jerry B.


I wanted to write about my experiences prior to my departure to Chiang Mai, Thailand and my experiences after my arrival.  Having prior traveling abroad experience, I didn't have the usual anxiety that might arise from this sort of travel experience.  I did a lot of reading concerning Thailand that was provided on the Volunteer Positive web site and attempted to familiarize myself with the culture and history.  I knew the climate would be warmer than Seattle, so I packed shorts and tee shirts, but I've had to buy more. 

Preparing travel arrangements were bit confusing for me especially when making the reservation from Bangkok to Chiang Mai and the time change difference. That being said, I made them on the wrong day, which ended up costing me.  Bangkok airlines said they would refund my error, since they could see that arrangements where made for the next day, but I would have to file a claim in order to do so, I have not done that yet. 

My 1st day consisted of meeting the staff at Christian Aids Ministry (CAM) I sat down at a round table and gave a reader digest version of "my story" then my NGO Brett immediately have to leave for a meeting, so I engaged with a staff member named Mit and we headed off for the detention facility to see if the agency could aid the person in police custody.  The incident occurred when he purchased a motorcycle from someone he trusted, turns out it was a stolen and he was arrested for theft. We made 4 trips to the detention headquarters trying to get a phone number to contact his family in Malaysia, hoping to get the 400,000 BHT required for his release.  Having the knowledge of our own detention facilities, prepared me for what I thought might take place. 

Well out of all of the going back and forth to HQ we were finally was able to talk to the man through a thick wall of Plexiglas and by phone that contained a lot of static.  What I could understand is that he wanted out, of course he would, but his family had no access to the type of funds required.  I felt helpless as I often do in situations similar to this. Apparently his case will be reviewed again in one month.  I felt sorry for him and wished I could magically help him to get out, anything.  Anyway, the process took the entire day.  In Seattle I provide pastoral care for youth in detention, though the atmosphere is similar, this was an exceptional experience for me. 

The next day I was taken to an emergency shelter called Baan Sabaay their focus is to provide care for post-acute illness recovery time.  Most of the clients have no extended family or friends to assist them.  The facility uses a holistic approach and offers an array of services to individuals not recognized as Thai citizens.  I then visited a Thai hospital called Saraphi and engaged with some orphaned children infected or affected by HIV/AIDS.  I serve professionally back home as a hospice chaplain, so I was honored to be with these people navigating with similar situations.  Today is a rather calm day and I was given my own computer to use while at the agency.  CAM asked me to "blog" my daily events on their web site, which I am thrilled to do.  I'm excited about what is yet to unfold.

I wanted to add one of the biggest reasons for coming on this trip was it encouraged me to explore opportunities that existed only in my imagination. Coming here would open doors that always seemed shut.  I can be out and open about my life and share my story with the people I care about and who care about me.  Being diagnosed, made me re-examine life and implement changes that have resulted in living a new spiritual life~Identifying myself as having HIV always seemed too risky.  I wanted to show I'm alive, despite being told I would most likely not survive. My life has meaning and purpose.  Halllelujah!!  I'm proud of what I've become.

--

For more information about Volunteer Positive, click here.



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