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AIDS activists share stories at church forum

By Mary Lou Harrison

An enthusiastic and eclectic group gathered at Church of the Redeemer, Toronto, on Feb. 14 to share AIDS-related stories of challenge, success and opportunity. Four speakers from three different organizations shared their experiences during a panel discussion moderated by Rick Kennedy, executive director of the Ontario AIDS Network.

Mr. Kennedy shared his opinion that “love and connectedness are required to put an end to HIV/AIDS.” The panellists, in turn, echoed this view as they talked about how love and acceptance are essential to dealing with the many challenges faced by those infected with or affected by HIV/AIDS.

Karen Vance-Wallace, executive director of The Teresa Group, explained the terrible impact of the disease on children and families, including one boy who lived with the secret of his mother’s HIV infection until he received support from The Teresa Group. He credits the organization with saving his life. Since 1990, The Teresa Group has provided a broad range of compassionate, frontline services to hundreds of local children and families affected by HIV and AIDS. Eighty-five percent of the organization’s clients are immigrants.

The immigrant community is also at the heart of the work of Latinos Positivos, a new AIDS organization. Omar Torres, prevention co-ordinator with the group, is intimately familiar with the barriers of language, stigma, discrimination and religious beliefs encountered by members of his community who are HIV-positive. When he started as a volunteer three years ago, Mr. Torres says, “I was afraid to say I was a member of the organization. Now, I am proud to say that I am a member of Latinos Positivos.”

Some of the people whom Mr. Torres is reaching out to are migrant farm workers across the province. Many workers are going back to their home countries infected, he says, with no access to medication, and where they cannot talk about their HIV-positive status.

Theresie, a volunteer speaker with the Toronto People with AIDS Foundation, is herself an immigrant to Canada, moving here in 2005 from Rwanda. She shared her struggles to accept her status as an HIV-positive woman and her development as a passionate leader in HIV/AIDS education and advocacy in Rwanda. In her church in Rwanda, she says, the disease is viewed as “a punishment from God.”  Theresie congratulated the Anglican Church for addressing issues related to HIV/AIDS, but added that she is surprised not to see more people getting involved in Canada. “The church should be where people who are burdened can come,” she says, encouraging churches to invite speakers from the Toronto People with AIDS Foundation to share their stories. “We want to go out and work with churches and communities.”

Kenneth Poon’s volunteer work with the Speakers’ Bureau of the Toronto People with AIDS Foundation is his way of giving back to an organization that has supported him through life and death struggles with AIDS. At 49 years of age, Mr. Poon has been HIV-positive for almost half his lifetime. He told a rapt audience of the two years he lived at Casey House and how his doctors did not expect him to live. Though he is now blind, Mr. Poon is healthy and strong enough to be leading a new life, one in which he is determined to share his stories in the hopes of educating others about the dangers of unsafe sex. “If everyone here can spread awareness and reduce stigma, it will help to create a better quality of life for people with AIDS,” he said.

At the end of the evening, a short video Just the Facts: Teens Talking to Teens About HIV/AIDS Transmission, was screened. Twenty-two young people volunteered to appear in the video, which was produced by the AIDS Action Committee of the Rotary Club of Belleville and which can be seen on YouTube.

The event on Feb. 14 was organized by the Diocese of Toronto HIV/AIDS Network in conjunction with Rotary Action for the Development of AIDS Responses. It was hosted by the Church of the Redeemer, which also provides a home base for the work of Diocese of Toronto HIV/AIDS Network.

The Network and Rotary Action for the Development of AIDS Responses will be holding the Rotary Trump AIDS Poker Walk on April 28 in Toronto to raise money for local and international AIDS-related projects. All churches are invited to take part.