This year’s Philippine International AIDS Candlelight Memorial (PIACM) tells us all that in this continuous fight against HIV, “U Matter.”

Among us, individuals and organizations have paved the way to make ripples of change and advance the HIV advocacy. Let us recall their stories and look into how their works and contributions have advanced, as we recognize the efforts of U as an Advocate.

Faustine Luell Angeles, Jr joined the roster of winners of the first Ripple Awards in 2017, for his passionate efforts in fighting ths stigma surrounding Persons Living with HIV (PLHIV), particularly with his Pedal for HIV project in 2015. “(Winning was) such a humbling experience,” Faustine recalls.

He may have needed to leave the country, but his advocacy carried on, as Faustine joined the AIDS Healthcare Foundation in The Netherlands. Being in Europe also gave him the chance to not only focus on his studies (International and European Law, and eventually International Human Rights Law for masteral studies), but represent Filipinos in global avenues supporting and promoting the HIV advocacy. “Last year, our film “Kemikal Romance” has been featured at the AIDS2020 Conference held in San Francisco,” he shares. “Due to the pandemic, it became the first virtual AIDS conference. Nevertheless, we are able to show the world the current situation of HIV and war on drugs in The Philippines.”

This year, Faustine is set to join the International AIDS Society Conference on HIV Science happening in July in Berlin, Germany, proving that no matter the distance or landscape, with or without the challenges and limitations brought by the pandemic, the fight is still alive inside Faustine, and has no plans of stopping.

Along the same lines of bravely forging on, but well within the proximity of their fellow Flipinos, Mikhail Zion “Mikee” Taggueg and Ronchie Santos successfully expanded their advocacy work in the country and during these trying times.

Two advocates from the provinces who made a lasting impact in their respective communities, Mikee founded the Cagayan Valley Support System for people living with HIV in his area in Isabela, while Ronchie started the Luntiang Silong treatment hub, at Bulacan Medical Center where he works as a nurse.

Since being named finalists in the Ripple Awards 2019, Mikee and Ronchie are still carrying the torch of their advocacies, burning bright with their fervent dedication to educate people about HIV and AIDS, and to eradicate stigma and discrimination about the diseases.

After strengthening tie-ups with the local government to improve their Local AIDS Council, Mikee found himself in a bigger role as National Coordinator for the Friends Protect Project (now known as Sexual Network Screening) in May 2020. “I was hesitant at first,” Mikee admits, “not only due to the ongoing pandemic, but also because of the responsibility of managing a pioneer project.” Under LoveYourself and The Global Fund, he managed a pioneer project covering five community centers across the Philippines. This new role required him to adjust in a work-from-home setup and remote coordination of Site Coordinators from different provinces. He also had to cope with varying community quarantine levels implemented in his concerned sites. As a community worker, Mikee also had to, at certain times, report to the head office in the National Capital Region and risk exposure to COVID-19. Thankfully, he was protected with stringent health and safety protocols, and door-to-door shuttle service. Reliable site coordinators and a trustworthy program manager made Mikee’s work a little easier, given these challenges. “The silver lining amidst this chaotic time were the people I worked with.”

Mikee remains loyal to his northern roots as he is now the Area Regional Coordinator based in Baguio City, under Pilipinas Shell Foundation Incorporated. He promises to apply his learnings from leading national-level projects so that their services remain accessible for patients and key populations that have become even more vulnerable due to the pandemic.

Ronchie, on the other hand, still works in his hospital and treatment hub, making sure it continues to operate, and that the clients and patients are treated well. “I do not intend to be complacent with the services I provide in this advocacy,’ says Ronchie, who strive to give something more or new in relation to HIV awareness, treatment, and related services.

Like similar groups and organizations who faced the pandemic by being focused and creative, Ronchie and his team learned to be more flexible in devising plans and solutions for various cases, and adaptive to the limitations brought by the current situation. This proved effective in their smooth and timely service delivery within Bulacan province.

Faustine, Mikee, and Ronchie have nothing but words of strength and encouragement to PLHIVs and fellow HIV advocates as we continue with what we’re doing while traversing the challenging journey of the pandemic. “Let’s be kind to one another and show empathy no matter what our differences are,” Faustine says as a reminder. “Keep in mind that you are stronger than who you think you are. No matter how difficult what you’re going through right now, always remember that this, too, shall pass.” During these challenging times, Mikee encourages fellow volunteers and advocates to remember why they started in the first place. For him, it is because he wants to be a part of eradicating HIV and AIDS, and their burdensome stigma.

Mikee believes fellow advocates must “remember why we started stepping in and doing our part in eradicating HIV and AIDS along with the stigma and discrimination surrounding it.” To the clients, he would like say: “please know we are here to make sure you receive adequate treatment, care, and support no matter what quarantine restrictions we are under.”

Ronchie, on the other hand, reminds fellow healthcare providers that the pandemic is a time when their capabilities are needed the most. “Such challenge wouldn’t be placed before us if we are not capable of handling it.”

Let’s continue to champion Faustine, Mikee, Ronchie, and other advocates whose work and efforts are truly noteworthy. Join us at the online event at the PIACM and LoveYourself Inc.’s official Facebook pages on May 16, 2021, 4 PM.

Text by Ross Manicad