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by Jemar Pamplona

December 29, 2022

Have you had an experience of needing to get this one thing, but there is no way for you to get it? How about accessing a health service but the situation wouldn't allow you to do so?

It happened to me during the lockdowns in the middle of the pandemic. Health services and facilities were too preoccupied by their covid19 response. But the sexual health service which I needed at that time, became unavailable and inaccessible. Health stations shifted their attention to covid19. Access to hospitals was restricted, if not, became limited. Apart from the government health facilities, I no longer know where to go to. And that is when my story as an advocate began. I learned about GM Bicol an organization that despite the threats of covid19, they remained open for those who may need sexual and reproductive health information and services.

I am a student nurse, and as a young person dreaming to become a health professional, I am aware that every opportunity to get health education and services could be life-saving. While I couldn’t access the health service I wanted, I can only imagine how much more individuals like me were barred from accessing life-saving health information and services.

“Advocacy is empathy, compassion and community at work” – Janna Cachola

My first engagement with GM Bicol was initially as a client seeking for health information to answer some questions, I sought answers to. It was a year ago when I first connected with them through GM’s social media platforms. Apart from getting the service I sought to find, I was also inspired to be part of the organization.

In the span of a year, sexual health advocacy grew in me. I became an active member, and part of it is I was trained to become an HIV counselor and community-based screening (CBS) motivator. As an advocate, a CBS motivator, a youth counselor of the organization, and a full-time student nurse were very challenging but exciting. It was challenging as I needed to manage my time well and balance my student life and my life as an advocate. In some instances, after my clinical duty at the hospital, I need to rush to the GM Community Center to meet my client scheduled to get free and confidential HIV screening and counseling. Despite running around under pressure between school and volunteer work, every engagement with a client seeking HIV services was exciting and fulfilling. It reminds me of myself prior to becoming a GM member… seeking for a health service provider.

The training I received in school as a student nurse is to engage with and provide care to people in both clinical and community settings. But in GM Bicol, it was something different from the concepts and lessons I learned from my professors and books. Along with the sexual health and HIV program, we had to immerse ourselves in spaces where the most vulnerable are. In my case, most of my clients were from Grindr, Twitter, and Facebook. A different level of community is in virtual space. This space is often not reached by regular health programs, but in GM we spend hours as volunteers to provide health education and counseling, and if needed link them to care.

I try my best to give clients my time. Usually during Saturdays or Sundays which are my vacant days and time off from school and clinical duty. Others would tell me that what I do is just a waste of time, money, and effort. But my usual reply is “I love doing this and I really want to be part of this”. I don’t know why but I really love doing this advocacy work and being a volunteer, without even expecting any return is like fulfilling a life’s purpose.

What I do today as an advocate and volunteer is very much related to the profession I want to become in the future. Wherein I can share my knowledge with everyone through the conduct of health teaching – like to clients potentially at risk of getting HIV. I also share my knowledge, by facilitating HIV 101 discussions and providing condom demos with my classmates and other students in our school during my free time. Also, during school hours, if there are no patients during our clinical duty, I take the initiative of sharing what I know about HIV/AIDS with my groupmates.

The most challenging part for me conducting CBS is when I have my very first HIV Reactive client. Since it was my first time, as to how will I handle the situation, especially in post-counseling and linking the client to care was something I haven’t done before. Still, I muster my courage and gathered the support of my peers in GM to be able to manage the situation well, favorable to my clients.

This year alone, from October to December 2022, I had a total of 8 HIV Reactive clients, 7 of whom are successfully linked to care at the treatment hub in Albay. While the other client who has not been linked to care yet is still being followed up, hopefully, to be enrolled in the treatment hub at the soonest possible time.

Prejudice, stigma… concepts I read in books and from online sources are real. My experience while enrolling my clients in the treatment hub is that every time I go to the hub, I can feel the glaring eyes piercing me – while people look at me from head to toe. I have a feeling that they are probably thinking that I am also a PLHIV, which I am not. Some of them are familiar faces and know me through social media. There were instances when they would send me messages to ask me why I was there.

I now understand that it is emotionally difficult to explain myself, over and over again. That what I do is to serve clients as part of my volunteer work. That I am with a client to be enrolled for treatment. This experience made me value more the advocacy I have – and now as a student nurse, I trust that I can be part of a bigger movement to fight HIV infection and the stigma attached.

GM Bicol is being recognized and commended by the BRHMC HACT to other clients because of the organization’s commitment to our clients once we enroll them. We accompany the client all throughout the process which often takes almost half a day.

I consider GM Bicol as my second home and family. Not just because of the persons who also do the same advocacy for HIV/AIDS and for the Sexual and Reproductive and Health Rights of the community, but because of the culture of camaraderie to achieve its purpose as an organization.

Advocacy is Empathy… we, the volunteers, in GM Bicol, have the ability to understand how every client feels regardless of what would be their result be. We provide unconditional care and moral support. We strive to share positivity, hope, and a second chance in their life.

Advocacy is Compassion… for us in GM Bicol, we care for everybody in the community as we provide free and confidential services for HIV/AIDS. We provide facts and life-saving information, hoping that this improves their point of view in life.

Advocacy is Community at work… for us in GM Bicol, we do this as a community, for the community. Together, we hope to spread correct information to end the stigma of HIV/AIDS. We conduct peer education activities, facilitate seminars and training across the community, and connect to other movers, like organizations and groups, to form partnerships.

My stand is that I will do everything within my personal capacity for advocacy. I feel in myself that this is my calling as a student nurse. Now, it is my wish which I share with my fellow advocates, that we will reach a time when HIV and the stigma related to it are no longer a problem.

"I am Jemar M. Pamplona, a 4th year BS Nursing Student. A Youth Member - Volunteer at GM Bicol for SRHR. I am a trained and certified Community Based HIV Screening Motivator, Peer educator, and counselor. And this is the story of my new found love for sexual health advocacy."

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