As HIV cases in the Philippines continue to rise, several groups of people have stepped up in helping the community to address the epidemic. LoveYourself, since 2011 has gathered over 900 volunteers supporting the day-to-day operations, programs, and projects of the organization. As it empowers more people to get tested for HIV, the organization grew the need for full-time employees to sustain itself. Some people had the courage and passion to take their advocacies to the next level and work in a non-profit organization while helping the community as volunteers.

Karlo Barsales, Clinic Manager

Karlo, was a private duty nurse in Pampanga  when he joined LoveYourself as a volunteer in 2015. He was so passionate in taking care of people that he used to go straight to LoveYourself Anglo from his workplace to volunteer his time in administrative tasks. Karlo, who was not a counselor then, enjoyed assisting people to feel comfortable in the center. Karlo recalled when a mother sought help to have her son who was diagnosed  with HIV, get treatment at LoveYouself. He immediately stepped in and was all-heart in assisting the mother and son. After the consultation, the mother approached Karlo with tears in her eyes and thanked him. That was the point he realized that he was making a difference in the community and later on accepting the job as the new Clinic Coordinator for LoveYourself Anglo.

His journey as an employee in the organization gave him bigger responsibilities towards clients and co-volunteers. One of the major things he learns in his role is crisis management. He resolved complaints and conflicts right away before it can reach to the core leadership team. Karlo, who is keen on details, takes every complaint, feedback, and suggestions about the clinic operations very seriously. He believes that these messages help the organization to serve its clients better.

Some people might not consider Karlo as a volunteer anymore but his peers and friends still do. Karlo volunteers as a Life Coach for LoveYourself’s Treatment Program during the operations off-peak hours. He also helps in Caravan events when clinics are closed.

The Future of HIV Testing

HIV Testing is evolving not only in the Philippines but around the globe. “I aspire for advancement in HIV testing like what other countries have, like self-screening because we have to admit, HIV cases is ballooning in our country”, Karlo says. He believes that this is not easy but he has high hopes. “This can be achieved through generous funding and proper Government-NGO partnership.”

As technology progresses when it comes to HIV testing, Karlo wants the LoveYourself clients to know that they are striving to meet their needs and expectations. “We are not perfect, but we are trying our best to give the best service and to deliver the organization’s promise to every client and visitor to feel the ‘iniingatan at inaasikaso’ atmosphere”, he says.

LoveYourself was able to test more than 70,000 people since its inception, and Karlo is thankful for the organization’s way of eradicating fear and stigma associated with HIV. He sees that more people are now easier to reach out for testing. Though he believes that stigma is still present, Karlo encourages people to get tested. “There is nothing wrong in knowing your HIV status, because HIV is never a disease. It is never a sickness due to promiscuity. It is not a death sentence. There is a life after HIV”, he added.

Karlo is currently the Clinic Head of LoveYourself Anglo, Uni and Victoria. He also serves as the Head of Operations that is part of the Technical Working Group of the LoveYourself Inc.

Kahel Jay Sta. Maria, Head Life Coach

An advocate in his own way, Kahel started a Facebook Page called HIV-Free Pilipinas where he receives queries about HIV, most of which were concerning testing centers in the Philippines. Doing his own research through Google, LoveYourself immediately popped in. It was a funny start for him; instead of inquiring about testing information for his followers, he inquired about Wear To Love, one of LoveYourself’s first fundraising events.  At the time, there was no final schedule. Instead he was invited to attend an orientation. Without any idea, he went to the orientation in Tayuman and when asked who referred him, he said Ronivin Pagtakhan, who he did not know was the founder of the organization that he will consider as his second home.

After a few months, he decided to train to become a counselor to be able to influence clients to help other people the way he helped them during their testing journey.

Kahel has been in the organization for more than four years and has since been very active. His bubbly personality makes him very good in hosting. His knowledge about HIV gives him the opportunity to teach and train. A people-person, Kahel uses his funny yet sensible character to be an effective and efficient member of different committees within the organization such as Events, LoveU, and Caravan.

Life as a Coach

In November 2015, LoveYourself launched the first Life Coaching program for People Living with HIV in the Philippines. This program aims to provide journey partners to people who are in need of psychological and emotional  support during the treatment process. Kahel is honored to be chosen as the first Life Coach for this program. It is no easy road for him as he deals with people who fear and struggle for their health. Kahel, who was a Medical Technologist by profession, has yet to see and feel the reality of a life coach. “It was overwhelming at first. I was hearing a lot of issues. Everything seemed to be an issue for a PLHIV – from family, to money, and of course, to health”, he said. One of the most challenging issues he dealt with was suicide. “I had clients who had thought and attempted of taking their own lives. But through coaching, by just listening and being there for them, they were able to decide to continue living despite having HIV”, he added.

If there was a significant contribution brought by 4S Program to the PLHIV clients, Kahel said that clients became more comfortable in dealing with their status. They started to accept and decided to pursue treatment.

I Am Worthy

“I Am Worthy’ is the 4S Program’s brand and as per Kahel, it is like a ripple that creates a positive change in the PLHIV community. “The entire 4S Team always aims to make sure that every client that we assist will get in touch with their core and realize that they are worthy. How do we do that? We treat them as humans. Our office is free from judgment and is a very safe space”, he said.

Advocacy and Employment

He considers his current job as no different from his advocacy, aside from the fact that he is getting paid and he has to submit reports and deliverables. But when it comes to duties and responsibilities, it has been the same since he learned about HIV and AIDS. His passion and dedication for the community is getting stronger each day as the number of coaches increases. Currently, TLY’s more than 40 life coaches have served as a 24/7 support hotline for more than 100 PLHIV’s. “These forty coaches have been there for our clients in every step of their treatment journey. We actually call them journey partners”, he said.

High Hopes
The team is growing and Kahel is hoping for the life coaches to be given continuous professional education and national recognition since the program has already been shared to different partner organizations such as Pinoy Plus and Quezon City Health Department.

With a smile on his face, Kahel encourages his co-volunteers to put their loyalty to the community, and honesty and commitment to the organization. He also has a very touching message for the PLHIV Community, “You are not alone in this journey, we are here”, he ended.

Kahel Sta. Maria is a Registered Medical Technologist and currently the Lead Life Coach for TLY 4S Program and HIV-TB Program Co-Manager.

Julius Ramilo, Project Coordinator, Project PrEPPy

Julius first learned of LoveYourself right after Valentine’s Day of 2016 when he got tested. He said that he immediately felt the iniingatan at inaasikaso vibe of the organization and right after the testing process, he immediately asked his counselor how to become a volunteer. Back then he wanted to spend his time and energy to a worthy cause, and LoveYourself opened its doors for him to become a volunteer in March 2016.

While working in a financial institution in Makati, Julius realized that he wasn’t happy with what he was doing and felt the need to escape. During those times, his co-volunteer Yanyan Araña sent him a new job posting within LoveYourself. He immediately grabbed the opportunity and applied as Project Coordinator despite having no clear idea of the roles and responsibilities, driven by passion.

Currently, Julius is the Project Coordinator for PrEP Pilipinas Project, the country’s first program that distributes Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) pills to the young men population. “I am proud to be part of this program. We are able to provide additional layer of protection to avoid HIV transmission to the people who are at risk of getting it. In addition, we are also spreading awareness to the community that there is such thing as this that exists”, he said. As the PrEP Project continues, Julius observes that the 250 clients are becoming more responsible with their sexual behaviors and are openly discussing their ideas and thoughts which he sees as a way of breaking the stigma surrounding sex and HIV. “PrEP also serves as a gateway to discuss other sexually transmitted infections (STI’s) since PrEP only protects you from HIV, and therefore using condom is of vital importance in preventing the spread of HIV”, he said.

Since he started working in the organization, Julius feels that he is more involved in the inner workings of operations unlike when he was just a volunteer. Being an employee of a community based organization, Julius is more exposed to different projects and programs that help the community adapt to changes and growth. He has built a strong relationship with his clients in PrEP Pilipinas and is able to maintain his enthusiasm in volunteering as a counselor. Despite his lack of experience working in a non-profit organization, he is eager to learn and explore. “There are a lot of interactions happening with the funders, reports, and deadlines, but despite that, I am always enthusiastic about my job”, he added.

Looking Forward
Julius hopes and wishes that PrEP could be available across the country for everyone who is willing to take it. He also hopes that consistent and adherent use of PrEP can decrease the number of HIV cases in the country. “I have hopes that HIV will decrease. STI’s will decrease. We just need to be patient and consistent with our works”, he continues. Julius sees himself to be much more involved and active in the organization and is willing to be part of other projects that aims in creating a better community.

Julius is the Project Coordinator for PrEP Pilipinas Project – a project that studies the viability of Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis among young men population of the Philippines.

Text by Ruben Jay C. Alverez, Jr.