By Sydney Kuppenbender
This summer, I had the opportunity to travel to El Salvador with SCIC's Global Citizen Youth Leadership Program and learn about the work of CoCoSI (Asociación Comité Contra El Sida Cabañas, or the Committee Against AIDS). During the program, we spent one morning alongside Aracely, CoCoSI staff, doing home visits for people living with HIV/AIDS. CoCoSI staff visit HIV patients who attend their workshops to make sure they’re taking their medication, have a decent living environment, and have the support of family members. CoCoSI also provides their HIV patients and their families with a small allowance each month to help support the purchase of healthier foods and necessary medication for the affected family members.
Carlos Rafael Genovez and his team at the Sensuntepeque AIDS Clinic in the Cabañas department, El Salvador.
We visited the homes of two different patients, Elena* and Isabel*, both in the community of Sensuntepeque. As soon as we arrived at each of the homes, both Elena and Isabel were very welcoming, and quite excited to see Aracely who runs their support group at the hospital. Due to the CoCoSI budget cuts, CoCoSI had to cut back on home visits, support group work and allowances for the patients. I am beginning to understand how difficult it must be, not only for the patients, but also for their families who all experience similar challenges with their health and hunger.
The biggest difference between the work CoCoSI is doing with HIV/AIDS patients compared to other organizations, is that CoCoSI focuses on both treatment and prevention. They don’t just hand out money to the affected families and leave them to cope on their own; they provide supportive group work and do home visits to teach people about HIV so that they can lead a normal life. The prevention aspect of their program is intended to teach other families about how the disease is spread, and to eradicate the stigmas associated with being a person living with HIV/AIDS that are prevalent in the district of Cabañas.
During our program orientation in Regina, we talked about what poverty looks like. We defined poverty as not having one’s basic needs met, such as lack of access to clean water, healthy food, proper shelter, education, and healthcare. I quickly learned that the realities of poverty as described existed in both homes we visited, but there was one more factor we missed; despair. The feeling of despair was tangible among both families, and this was what made the visit so difficult. These families have barely any means to survive; it is admirable, however, they work hard every day for their survival and to stay healthy, despite sometimes the lack of hope for social change.
It is very difficult to put the personal meaning of this visit into words, however I think I can summarize it; heart-breaking and life-changing. It took a lot of reflecting to accept what I witnessed that day, and it opened my eyes to how deeply-rooted into society the stigmas for HIV/AIDS are, and how difficult it is to change them. However, it was also very uplifting to see the support that people living with HIV/AIDS have found in close family members and friends. These women and families are strong and they have become role models for other people living with HIV/AIDS. Meeting Elena and Isabel and learning about their lives motivated me to take the initiative to begin changing the HIV/AIDS stigmas in my community, in hope that one day the inspiring people living with HIV in El Salvador will no longer have to live in fear of discovery.
*To protect their identities and safety, the names of the patients have been changed in this article.
Sydney Kuppenbender is a student at Churchill Community High School in La Ronge, SK. Sydney was one of eight Saskatchewan youth leaders that traveled to El Salvador through SCIC's Global Citizen Youth Leadership (GCYL) Program to learn about the work of SCIC member PWRDF, and their local partner CoCoSI. Sydney will be participating in a speaking tour with her fellow Youth Leaders in the fall of 2015 sharing their reflections with their peers and communities. Learn more here.