When David Berube stood in front of a classroom of twenty Thai students and asked if they knew anyone who had HIV or AIDS, not a single hand went up. He felt a rush of fear when Cee, his Thai translator, told the children that Berube had been HIV+ for ten years. “What was going to happen?” Berube wondered. “Were they going to be afraid of getting close to me now that they knew?” All eyes were on him, and for a moment, the room was silent.
Berube, an artist from New York, was in Chiang Mai to organize and help paint a twenty-foot mural through School for Life and Art Relief International. His volunteer placement was arranged through Volunteer Positive, the first short-term international volunteer organization in the world for people with HIV/AIDS.
“We were able to dispel common myths regarding HIV and AIDS and we were able to create a forum for these kids to talk about it openly,” he says of his placement.
When he disclosed his HIV status, his students began to applaud. “Fear? It was all mine.” His students didn’t care that he was HIV positive. “They had learned that you don’t become infected through casual contact. It was as simple as that.”
Berube was one of eleven volunteers on Volunteer Positive’s inaugural trip to Thailand, where approximately 500,000 people live with HIV. All but one of the volunteers were HIV+. Most were from the LGBT community and ranged in age from 34 to 65. Most were American, but there were also volunteers from Canada and Malaysia. They volunteered at placements like Grandma Cares, which works with children who have been orphaned by AIDS and are in the care of their grandparents, CAM (The Church of Christ Aids Ministry), and MPLUS, an LGBTQ organization in Chiang Mai. Through their experiences, they are working to change perceptions about people with HIV/AIDS, not just in Thailand but at home.
According to Peter, an HIV+ volunteer who was placed at an outreach center for MSM and transgendered people and wishes to remain anonymous, “I was amazed at the lack of knowledge about HIV and the stigma associated with HIV [in Chiang Mai].” Peter is a retired educator who describes himself as “busier now than when I worked full time.”
Through his volunteer work in the U.S. and abroad, he is fighting stereotypes that individuals with HIV/AIDS cannot live full, productive lives. “
I am positive but that does not define me,” he says. “I have woven the disease into my life, not built my life around it. HIV has not kept me from doing anything that I want to do.”
Volunteer Positive is the brainchild of Carlton Rounds, who has worked in the field of international education, international service, and human rights for more than 25 years. He is also a singer and actor who has been involved in more than one hundred productions. He was once a cabaret performer at The Bohemian Club and The Plush Room in San Francisco as well as a member of the Lavender Light Gospel Choir, an LGBTQ multi-racial choir in NYC. He describes his talent as a singer as “a gift related to communication,” and this gift motivated him to begin Volunteer Positive.
“Maybe I had been rehearsing my whole life in order to be prepared for the kind of work I do now,” he says. “Maybe all the songs and stories I stored inside helped me get through the dark times.” Rounds experienced a particularly dark time in 2005. A month before he was scheduled to give a presentation in Cape Town, South Africa, on HIV and human rights, he found himself slumped over at his desk, exhausted. He knew something was wrong. A doctor’s visit revealed that he was HIV+.
Despite the challenges of his diagnosis, he realized having HIV was not as devastating as dealing with public health officials, invasive personal questions, and a general lack of services. “I was told basically to shut up, take my meds, and say nothing. My anger turned inward and I became terribly depressed. It took a while to climb out of that hole and redirect my rage into something productive.”
One of those productive things turned out to be Volunteer Positive, an idea that was born in Rounds’ living room in Poughkeepsie, New York, and was partially inspired by the story of Jeremiah Johnson, a Peace Corps volunteer who was sent home for being HIV+ in 2008. “At that time, I had come out about my HIV status fearing my job and ability to travel, but Jeremiah’s bravery and his successful legal battle gave me courage,” Rounds says. “I guess I wanted to in turn see if I might share that courage with others like me.”
While the Peace Corps has since amended its policies so that eligible volunteers cannot be excluded simply because they are HIV+, many travelers and volunteers with HIV/AIDS still face discrimination abroad, along with the stress that comes from trying to hide their status. Until recently, an immigration ban barred travelers with HIV/AIDS from coming into the United States, and because of the ban, which President Barack Obama lifted in 2009, no major AIDS conferences had been held in the United States since 1993, in large part because HIV+ activists and researchers weren’t allowed into the country. Legally, Americans with HIV/AIDS are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which protects them from discrimination.
Through his work with Volunteer Positive, Rounds is fighting the stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS as well as encouraging those who are HIV+ to volunteer internationally and give back. “I want to demonstrate that we are not just surviving, but thriving,” he says. “Volunteer Positive is about being visible, strong, and experienced in the world. It is about not being ashamed or quiet, but open and free to participate, guide and connect.”
One such moment of openness and connection during the inaugural program in Chiang Mai happened at Agape Home, an orphanage for children who are HIV+ or at risk of contracting the virus. Michael “Cabbie” Caban, a volunteer who is HIV- but describes himself as HIV affected, says there was “an incredible moment of intensity and awe from the young people and staff [at Agape]” when the volunteers disclosed their status.
“I think it was this realization that these people were just like them. They have this same disease running through their veins…and they are healthy and playing with us.” It was a breakthrough not just for the children but the staff. “For the [staff] who were negative, I think it was a moment of realization that broke stigma for them,” Caban says. They realized “these people are HIV+ and they came to help us, to hang out with us, and to just be with us.”
Volunteer Positive also provided an opportunity for volunteers to connect and bond with each other. The group stayed in a guesthouse in the old city around the corner from Wat Chiang Man, a Buddhist temple dating from the thirteenth century.
“We all came to the program with different reasons for being there, the common denominator being our HIV status,” Berube says. “I found it beneficial to have so many varied life stories as to how we all reached this point…It was good to connect with others, compare notes, lend a hand and an occasional shoulder to cry on.”
Caban agrees. “I think that being HIV+ creates an unspoken awareness and connection that is astounding,” he says. “On the side of the volunteer who is infected or affected, there’s a want and a need to reach out to folks that are like them.” In this way, those who are HIV+ have the opportunity to connect with each other across international borders, age, religion, race and gender.
This sense of solidarity is one of many things that sustains Rounds and Volunteer Positive. “I want to meet my HIV+ brothers and sisters around the world, as they are in some unique way part of my extended family,” he says. Ultimately, Rounds hopes to add programs in Latin America and Africa. Possible locations include Merida, Mexico and Cape Town, South Africa. For now, though, he is focused on the program in Thailand.
During the closing ceremonies of Volunteer Positive’s inaugural program, the mural that Berube had designed with twenty children from School for Life hung above the stage. The mural shows two happy, smiling couples with their arms around each other while smiling cartoon characters shaped like condoms hold up a banner that reads “Protect” in English and Thai. Above the mural was a sign with Volunteer Positive’s logo, which consists of three words: “Positive. Powerful. Visible.”