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.