Last year whilst travelling in Colombia I was fortunate enough to be able to volunteer at an orphanage for children who were living with HIV, and whose parents were either too sick to care for them or who had passed away.
On arriving we worked out my strengths and what skills I could best offer the kids. Despite my energetic calls for football and swimming, it was decided that as well as those things, I would also talk to them about something they never talked about, HIV. HIV would become my subject for the next 5 weeks. The realisation that HIV was my subject took me to a place of reflection, sadness and disbelief. How did this become my subject? But alas, it was, and I was going to use all my strength and knowledge that I had gained over the previous 3 years to ensure I could help the kids push through barriers with someone that really did understand.
I asked the manager to allow me to get to know the kids for a week before anything was discussed surrounding HIV. We played soccer, I taught English and we went swimming. A week in however, and it was time to disclose to a group of children living with HIV, that I too, was HIV positive.
It was a Monday afternoon and they had just returned from school. They were happy to see me, hugging me and running around, kicking a football. As we gathered in the study room I felt the nerves beginning to set in. What would the kids think of me? Would they be happy to know or sad? Would they not even care and all the build-up would be for nothing?
The manager gathered them around and said that there was something we were all going to discuss and that it could only be discussed with me. That everything would be kept private and they should feel comfortable talking to me. I then looked at all of their confused faces and told them, “I have HIV, the same as you”. Their eyes widened with disbelief. They had had many volunteers before, but none like them. The manager left the room and it was just us.
They pulled their chairs around me, as close as humanly possible without actually being on top of me. As I began to tell them my story of contracting it through an ex-boyfriend in London, their faces began to drop, they began to cry, they laid their heads down on their desks and stopped talking. Their initial interest had quickly become pain when forced to think and face their own situation. So there I was, trying to console a group of 8-16 yr old children, in Spanish. Trying to tell them that it will be fine, that life is great, when basically what I had done is turned a group of fun loving kids into a group of crying distressed messes.
I can’t begin to describe the hurt it caused me to be that person. To fully understand what facing your fear of HIV is and then making kids do it. It took me all my strength to not cry in front of them. I then had to explain that over the next 4 weeks we would talk about HIV. All I wanted was to be that fun loving Sarah they wanted to see, but I knew I had a responsibility to them to help them break down that first barrier of just being able to talk about HIV without bursting into tears.
Over the next 4 weeks I did talk about HIV. They didn’t know there was any other way of contracting it besides being born with it. My favourite moment was during a question and answer exercise I did in my 1st proper session about how you can contract HIV. One boy had obviously been listening to my story as he yelled out “EX BOYFRIENDS”. I completely lost it, and I knew that despite how hard it was to bring up these emotions in them, and myself, it was necessary for them to be able to discuss and learn about HIV.
The last time we all gathered they all knew what the subject would be. They asked me during the day, and I said, “I’m sorry, but it’s about HIV”. One boy said, “that’s ok we understand”, that in itself was huge, for both him, and me. When I had finished my last talk, they didn’t want me to leave. They came and hugged me, they thanked me, they dragged me upstairs to play card games. I knew at that point that it was the right decision, that I had been strong enough for all of us to get through and that I had in some way, through my disclosure, I had made living with HIV easier for all of us.