Thursday, July 7, 2016

As LoveYourself Turned Five, A Message from LoveYourself Founder Vinn Pagtakhan

By Gello Ganon

One drop has caused the ripple of altruism. One vision has shed light on the lost.  One voice has resonated through the hearts of many.

Vinn Pagtakhan, the namesake of Vinn Advocacy, which would later be known as Love Yourself, started with a vision to provide a home, where, once visited, one can only leave with either a happy heart or at least, a hopeful one. It is a place where judgement is dusted off in the doormat before entering and hope is served for snacks. In just half a decade, shoulders were tapped to take on the mission to be a voice of the silent and to be the guide for the lost. They’re to be called the LoveYourself volunteers, modern-day superheroes (or super heroines for that matter) who work in the shadows.

As Love Yourself turns 5, a simple celebration was held at Ramada Hotel in Binondo, Manila on the eve of July 2, 2016. Volunteers and friends of LoveYourself gathered and kicked off the night with the Circle of Love, an event commemorating good deeds, happy memories and shared dreams. Vinn, the progenitor of LoveYourself, welcomed the night with a heartfelt message of what Love Yourself has gone through, where it stands now and what it aims to be.

Anniversary Message
Vinn Pagtakhan

“Anniversaries are wonderful, magical, celebratory occasions. Anniversaries are opportunities for recollections of the year gone by and positive reflections for the year ahead.”

“This past year has been a happy and successful year in so many ways. It has been defined by a kaleidoscope of happy memories, supportive friendships and enduring relationships.”

“Of course there have also been some paths that may have been slightly more difficult to travel together. Yet in spite of and despite the odd stumbling blocks along the way--we have traveled through yet another year--together, supportive, encouraging and enduring.”

“When I initially started with our advocacy, little did I know that we will have an empire of dedicated and passionate lovers.”

Sabi nga ni Chris, the LoveYourself Family is founded by a small group of people with big hearts who are convinced that unconditional love, a solid sense of self-worth, and an unbreakable courage of heart are the tools necessary to address the HIV situation here in the country. Keeping in mind that LoveYourself is just a vessel to help the community but our loyalty lies with the advocacy.”

“LoveYourself was founded by love and genuine care, its walls were built by time, sacrifices and hardwork of our volunteers and volunteer leaders. Now and hopefully for the coming years, we keep the culture of being caring, passionate and kind.. ang pagiging maasikaso at maalaga.”

“And as we take the time to express our gratitude for 5 fantastic years gone by--we turn expectantly to the years that lie ahead.”

“We look forward to wonderful years together - a time to build and strengthen forged relationships even further; a time to create and cherish even more shared memories and a time filled with dreams that are brought ever closer, and milestones - whatever they may be - achieved, and of course a family to cherish.”

“Tonight, as we celebrate our 5th anniversary, I value even more, the special people that we are able to share this occasion with.”

“Our fairy godmothers (miss Marvi, Doc Loyd, Doc Gerard & Doc Gen and of course ang ating one and only ninang Doc Annie Rossana).

“The founding members and core leaders (Chris, Neil, Ian, Kuya Law, Tony, Von and Antzy)”

“The new breed of leaders, ang 2nd generation TWG (Kurt, Edgie, Paul, Earl, Danvic, Jay, Mommy Miggy and little princess Philip & orginal Ops TWG, Px & Sephy, the wondergirls Dexter, Jeoff, Mama Renee).”

“My admin team (Jhaydee, Voki, Anton, Yesha, Karlo, Wico, Kahel, Mommy Allen and Malou, Ryan and Winston; RSC Girls, Shude and Ken, Ivy, Pete, Barry, Gab, Mike & Jase).”

“The batches (Originals, Next Gen, Synergy, Impetus, Vanguard, Ignite, Ascend, Sensation, Absolute, Hiraya, Bigkis, Katha, Kinaadman and our babies batch Magayon).”

“As the saying goes, It doesn't matter where you go in life or what you achieve, or what you do - what matters most is who you have beside you along the way! Memorize ninyo na toh but I will keep repeating this over and over.. kayo lovers ang puso at kaluluwa ng Loveyourself, and once a lover, no matter where you are now or where you will be in the future, you will always be part of the Loveyourself family.”

“Thank you - one and all - for being beside us this past year...and may you be ever near in the years ahead.”

“I'll leave you tonight with a quote that really inspires me and resonates the passion to help more: ‘When you volunteer, you are not paid in money or recognition, you are paid in love. People may forget what you said and people may forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel’".

LoveYourself Welcomes 2nd Batch of Volunteers for 2016, "Magayon"

Last June 11, LoveYourself once again welcomed a new set of volunteers, collectively known as Batch Magayon. This new set of volunteers corresponds to LoveYourself’s second wave of recruited volunteers for 2016.

The batch name “magayon” comes from the Bicolano word “beautiful”. LoveYourself hopes that this batch of volunteers will allow beauty to radiate from within themselves and touch the lives of people they will encounter in the organization’s advocacy of HIV awareness and self-worth.

Batch Magayon volunteers will receive training to become counselors in LoveYourself’s two HIV testing clinics - the LoveYourself Uni in Pasay and LoveYourself Anglo in Mandaluyong. Batch Magayon volunteers will also have the opportunity to move further with the option of undertaking life coaching training as part of LoveYourself’s latest program, the NEX+ CHAP+ER program, a life coaching service for PLHIV’s (People Living With HIV).

Behind the Logo

The sinarapan is used as an icon for Batch Magayon. LoveYourself Creatives lead Geno Maglinao connects the diminutive sinarapan, endemic to Bicol and also the world’s smallest edible fish, with beauty. This association conveys the importance of looking beyond traditional perceptions of the beautiful to beauty from within, hearkening to Miss Universe 2016 Pia Wurtzbach’s words, “confidently beautiful with a heart”.

The choice of Philippine endemic species for batch logos is in line with LoveYourself Creatives’ plans for 2016. The first batch for 2016, Kinaadman, utilized the Philippine Eagle Owl, a species prevalent in the Visayas region. Similarly, the choice of virtues and traits expressed in various Filipino dialects as names for batches of new recruits was started this 2016.

Recruiting Magayon

Similar with past recruitments, Magayon recruits underwent a careful review process whereby the candidates’ capacity to perform in and contribute to the organization are evaluated. LoveYourself Recruitment Team Lead Pete Tan shares that as LoveYourself is expanding with the creation of more internal committees in response to its growing number of services, such as the NEX+ CHAPTER program, among others being planned to be launched soon, the considerations for evaluating candidates also correspondingly increased.

With 50 volunteers, Magayon bears the same trend in the increased number of recruits seen in Kinaadman earlier this year. LoveYourself’s stronger social media presence,the success of its mass testing events including this year’s Incognito and exciting fundraisers such as Cherry Poppin’ have all been a big help in attracting people to join the organization.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Volunteer Spotlight: Monching Domingo Co, a Lover and a Fighter

LoveYourself counselor and single dad Monching has had his fair share of ups and downs, but his unwavering spirit and constant inspirations in life have gotten him through hell and high water time and time again.

By Jean Natividad

We were already at the final stretch of our hour-long interview, but Monching couldn't help but shed tears. It was a rainy evening in June, and we were seated outside the bustling Pineapple Lab in Makati City, guests taking long drags from their cigarettes nearby.

The mood inside was celebratory. It was LoveYourself's Pride Night 2016 event, and hundreds of LGBT members and allies gathered to celebrate love, acceptance, and freedom. Outside, it was rather sentimental as Monching revealed his touching narrative.

It was an emotional hour that didn't seem enough to hear about the story of Monching, a young professional, a LoveYourself volunteer, a gay single father, and a relentless fighter. It was during this hour that he took this writer for a rollercoaster ride through the ups, downs, twists, and turns of his soap opera-like life.

The dedicated Lover
Monching is celebrating his first year as a LoveYourself volunteer. To join the organization was a plan that took a while to materialize, and his inspiration for doing so is something familiar to other volunteers.

"I was inspired to join the organization by a friend who was infected with HIV. Sadly, he passed away even before I could join LoveYourself," Monching shares.

"He disappeared from our group of friends, and I was the only one he opened up to about his situation. I was grateful because he trusted me, but I do get sad thinking that had I known more about HIV that time, maybe I would have been able to help him better," he adds.

But what Monching couldn't do for his friend then, he's doing for LoveYourself clients now. As a LoveYourself counselor, Monching educates and helps clients go through the HIV testing process.

"So far, I haven't had a reactive client, so I'm preparing for that. It's wonderful to see the relief in the faces of nonreactive clients after they find out their status... But I'm also preparing myself to let my future reactive clients know that testing positive for HIV infection is not the end of the world."

Monching adds, "I'm also able to help more people in my network because since they know I'm a counselor, they get in touch with me and I get to refer them to our clinics. I'm happy to be able to help in my small ways."

The tenacious fighter
Monching, 33, is a single parent to his son Yuan, 14. "Being a parent is really tough because you have to set aside your own dreams for your child. When I had Yuan, suddenly, all my dreams and actions were just for him."

"And as an LGBT parent, it's also tough because of the discrimination in society. What I'm trying to avoid is to have my son bullied just because I’m a gay father, " Monching tells us.

Thankfully, bullying has never been an issue for his growing son, who understood early on that his father isn't straight. Monching notes he doesn't pretend to be straight, especially when attending school meetings and events, but he does make sure to conduct himself in ways that he'd be respected as the father of Yuan. "I wanted to make a statement that being gay is not a limitation in being a parent," he says.

Monching had Yuan when he was 19 with his girlfriend back then. They ended their relationship three years after Yuan was born, and the child stayed with Monching and Monching’s mother. "I would say I was bisexual. When I was young, I would really have crushes on girls and have girlfriends. But I once had a male childhood friend that I also liked, and as I grew up, I noticed how my attraction for men grew stronger," he shares.

He admits he had fears after finding out he was going to be a young father, one of which was how to raise his child given he was still a student then. Monching chose to quit school temporarily and work to raise his son. He took a job as a service crew in a fast-food joint and waited for the chance to go back to school.

Monching eventually made it back to the classroom. By that time, his son was already studying, too - and it was twice the struggle to get himself and his child an education. The call centre business was just booming in the country then, and so he switched jobs to better finance their education.

"The challenge was also to divide my time as a father, as a student, as an employee, and as a lover," he coyly shared. "So I would work at night, and then go to school in the morning, and then go home to check on Yuan, sleep, repeat. And when I had extra time, I went out on dates."

Four years of that strenuous routine and Monching got his degree in BS Psychology, proving not just to himself but to others as well that hard work really pays off. "Yuan graduated from elementary school and I graduated from college just one day apart. It was a happy moment, having that feeling of fulfilment as a father and as a student. It was like hitting two birds with one stone."

The good of it all   

Theirs is a bond beautifully captured by Monching's anecdote: "I remember when I broke up with an ex boyfriend. I was so drained, I went to my room, and I just broke down. Yuan saw me crying and asked why. I told him it was nothing and I was just so, so tired. I closed my eyes, and perhaps he thought I was already asleep. I heard him say, 'Da, don't worry. When I grow up, I'll be the one to take care of you. No one's going to ever make you cry again.' He left the room, and I was just so overcome by emotion.'"

Monching adds, "He's my forever boyfriend. I told him that one time: 'You're my boyfriend forever. Out of all the men I will meet and will be my boyfriend and will leave me, I know you're the only one who will never ever abandon me. You're my forever.'" Aside from being his ‘forever boyfriend,’ Monching also considers Yuan his kryptonite, his only weakness.

There are many other rewards Monching is reaping at the moment. No matter how cliche, he admits all his worries and exhaustion disappear when he gets home and sees his son. He also feels immense joy in knowing that he is his child's hero.

He adds, "I'm also happy to inspire people, especially those who are single parents - straight or not. It's also rewarding that I have a supportive family and equally supportive colleagues that remind me of everything I've conquered whenever I feel so tired. It's rewarding to be appreciated by people for the things I've done that I didn't even do for myself or just to impress others.”

What he hopes to share

Having gone through all his experiences, Monching shares messages he hopes will inspire single parents, gay parents, and their children. "For solo parents like me, we have to be brave and strong because someone's counting and leaning on us. If we're weak, how can our children draw strength from us? And vice-versa, we can also draw strength from our children.

"For gay parents, we still can't avoid discrimination, but in whatever we do, we must remember to put our children first before men. Men will disappear, but our children won't. We also need to be brave and we need to prove that being gay is not a hindrance to being a parent... Parenthood knows no gender."

In tears, thinking of his very own kryptonite, Monching concludes our evening interview with a message befitting the deeper meaning of Pride Night, "For children whose parents are part of the LGBT community, keep loving your parents because they draw strength from you. Acceptance should come from you first because if not from you, and if other people keep condemning us, where else would we get the strength to move forward?"

Photos: Jack Torres
Photo Editing: Mark Long

LoveYourself Volunteer Spotlight is a monthly feature on the cause- and service-oriented members of LoveYourself. We will be chatting with volunteers from all walks of life – all united in one cause. Keep checking every month to meet the different faces of LoveYourself.

Have you been inspired by the courage and commitment of our volunteers? Like us on Facebook and help share our message of positivity and self-worth in your own communities to help fight the spread of HIV.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

LoveYourself's Circle of Love 2016: Solidarity in Diversity, and Gratitude For The Past 5 Years

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”
-  Lao Tzu

The famous pundit’s words have always rung true for people who strove for growth and greater heights. For LoveYourself, these words resonate just as well as the organization reaches a significant milestone. LoveYourself celebrates its 5th anniversary by holding its annual “Circle of Love” festivities, with this year’s event focusing on themes of solidarity in diversity and gratitude as its reaches its 5th year milestone. Circle of Love 2016 will be held on July 2.

From a Few Steps to Reaching Out Further

The non-profit organization started out with a team of six counselors, then known as VINN Advocacy, named after its founder, Vinn Pagtakhan. “I remember the day when we held our first mass testing activity, and we weren’t even allowed by doctors from the Health Department to counsel by ourselves. They said we weren’t ready [despite the fact that we were more than prepared for it]”, shares the founder of the organization now with almost 700 volunteers.

LoveYourself has embarked on education and awareness campaigns, and mass testing activities. It opened its first clinic in collaboration with the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM), The LoveYourself Hub in Malate, Manila in 2011. By 2014, LoveYourself expanded its reach when it opened the LoveYourself Anglo along Shaw Boulevard in Mandaluyong City. Earlier this year, LoveYourself has opened a bright and youthful facility called the LoveYourself Uni near the Taft-Gil Puyat junction to replace The LoveYourself Hub.

Onto its fifth year, the organization has entered a new phase by expanding its core services from HIV awareness and testing to include life coaching programs for PLHIVs (People Living with HIV). The group has striven to continually improve its services, implementing the “inaasikaso at inalagaan” brand of service this year to all of its clients.  With more clinics it plans to open, along with its innovative campaigns, LoveYourself has been making HIV testing more accessible not only to the general population, but to sectors that are most at risk. Based on HARP (HIV/AIDS and ART Registery of the Philippines) data maintained by the Department of Health’s Epidemiology Bureau, LoveYourself is now a major contributor to national HIV statistics as its testing services capture key sectors in the population.

The Circle of Love

Looking back at the five-year journey LoveYourself has treaded, the fifth Circle of Love commemorates all of the organization’s milestones by recognizing key and outstanding volunteers who have selflessly dedicated themselves to the cause and improvement of the organization. Afterwards, the first ever Miss LoveYourself pageant will be held, with representatives from various batches of LoveYourself volunteers competing for the crown. In contrast to previously held pageants, this year’s event will focus on HIV awareness platforms as a main criterion for judging the contestants.

LoveYourself has grown from a group of friends working for a cause to a more formidable force of almost 700 volunterers, comprised of people from various walks of life, united together, more than ever before, to help the community through HIV education and awareness, and to send the important message of loving oneself and self-worth. This year’s Circle of Love celebrates the forces of volunteerism that have congealed individuals together, and to exercise gratefulness for what LoveYourself has accomplished.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Volunteer Spotlight: Vinn Pagtakhan, Mother of LoveYourself

By Karl Faustino
It was never in Vinn’s wildest dreams that he would eventually give birth to LoveYourself. Almost 5 years later, Vinn recalls how he and his friends raised this baby into the organization that has grown to be the largest, most renowned volunteer group advocating HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention in the Philippines.
On conceiving LoveYourself
Pre-LoveYourself, Vinn was a private person. As an advocate of “World Peace,” it became part of his life to do charity work, most of them outreach events. Back then, he was not yet aware of LGBT and MSM volunteer groups. “I just want to help” became his mantra.
When he became a nursing practitioner, he created the twitter profile @TwitrNurse. As his following grew, he found out that most of the questions people asked on social media were slowly becoming more focused on HIV/AIDS, and these mostly came from gay/MSM accounts. Then he realized that the current efforts toward HIV/AIDS is not enough. He then said to himself, “If I wanted to do something to help spread awareness on HIV/AIDS, I’m gonna do something different.”
At first, Vinn thought of creating a youth-centric community center, which later on evolved into an LGBT community center, somehow inspired by what he has seen in San Francisco. On June 29, 2011, during one of his friends’ birthday celebrations, he proposed his plans to those present in the party and asked for their commitment to help transform his vision into reality. “For some reason, the universe conspired because that night, I met Chris (Lagman), Von (Arroyo), Ian (Alquiros), and the rest of who would be the founding members of TLY. Everyone got excited with the proposal, so we decided to do it and started writing down the necessary steps to make it happen.” By July 21, 2011 LoveYourself was officially registered.
The birth pains of LoveYourself
Back then, LoveYourself was a “new kid on the block” and with just a handful of enthusiastic volunteers, it was not an easy task. After its inception, branding and funding became the first order of business on their list. By the end of July, they organized their first ever mass testing targeting MSM (men who have sex with men) sex workers. By September, after a screening of “Sayaw ng Dalawang Kailwang Paa” back to back with "Zombadings" and photo shoot fundraisers, they were able to generate enough funds to have the core team undergo DOH training, giving birth to LoveYourself’s first batch of HIV counselors and volunteers. Shortly afterwards, TLF (The Library Foundation) Share, a non-profit membership organization comprised of sexuality, health and rights educators, provided Peer Education training.
The circle of alphamales
Vinn also recalls another birth pain – managing the strong personalities of the core team. For him, it was hard to mediate everyone and everyone ended up “agreeing to disagree,” as it were. Arguments were heated, and people weren’t just going to give up on their perspectives so easily. “The good thing about it though is that at the end of every argument, Chris usually asks me for the final say. And I’m happy that they still respect me, especially when I feel that there are things that don’t go well with the overall vision.” Vinn says he is happy that despite all the differences, there is still respect among the members, and it’s a culture that continues up to this day.
Coping with funding
Vinn also remembered how difficult it was to raise resources during the first few years. The resources came from either me, Chris, or the fundraisers. It was like paying for the tuition of two college students! We also relied on help from other volunteers. But it was more of a personal sacrifice, which I didn’t mind because I know that it’s for a good cause, and it’s a good investment for Love Yourself’s growth. At the end of each event, I am happy because it all went well despite our limitations. I think our key strength as an organization is that we believe in the innate goodness of people.”
It was also because of these events that Vinn learned how to Google for information on where he can apply for grants to further fund the organization’s activities. With his resourcefulness, Vinn was able to secure funding from several companies and international agencies for sustaining LoveYourself’s operations in the years to come.
On raising LoveYourself
Now that LoveYourself has grown beyond Vinn’s initial vision, so do the struggles that he faces in managing it. Resource funding problems have evolved to submitting fund utilization reports to sponsors. Challenges in organizing events became challenges in clinic operations. And managing a handful grew to managing hundreds of volunteers.
On negativity and the art of deadmatology
With its growing popularity, LoveYourself has had its fair share of detractors. But Vinn just simply lets it all pass. “We can’t please everybody no matter how hard we try. There will always be somebody who will throw stuff at us. You just have to learn to let it enter and exit your ears. That’s the art of magnanimity and deadmatology. What gives me the strength every time is the support that you get from people in the organization. There are things to improve, but overall we’re doing something good. As long as there is someone who believes in us, my confidence for the organization will always be there.”
On coping with fatigue and stress
Vinn came to a breaking point last year when his anemia struck him big time. It was during that time when several things were happening simultaneously that it became a bit too much for his body to handle. It was never a reason for him to give up though. “My physical body may be down, pero yung espritu santo ko buhay na buhay pa rin (but my spirits were still very much alive)!” The confidence and faith he has in LoveYourself’s staff and volunteers made him feel at ease that everything will run smoothly even while he was recovering. “Before, I was very hands on with all projects. But thanks to everyone, the organization operates smoothly even if there are several things going on.”
I continue to be just me
Vinn recalls how Chris oftentimes protects him from negativities while raising LoveYourself. “He just wanted me to stay the way I am – perky, warm, and friendly. He wanted me to share my authentic personality to the organization. He doesn’t want me to face everyone looking or feeling jaded because of everything that’s happening in the advocacy. I appreciate this gesture more than ever, because if it were not for this, I don’t know if I will be like this up until today.”
On reaching out to everyone
Given the scale of the organization, Vinn has yet to continue reaching out to its volunteers, especially the new batches. “Everytime I’m here, I make sure that I always go to the clinic to say hello to everybody. Of course, not everyone is able to go to the clinics. But I really want to know everyone especially the new volunteers. The organization has grown so big that it has become difficult for me to really be everywhere at the same time. I hope I can have a ‘coffee with Princess’ kind of an activity with the new batch of volunteers so I can get closer to them.”
Looking back and moving forward
Vinn mentions that over the past five years, his greatest contribution as LoveYourself’s mother is building something that is open to everyone. “LoveYourself was able to open its doors to everyone regardless of identity, financial capability, sexuality, and religious or political beliefs. I believe that everyone has something good to give, and it is this openness to diversity that helped us grow into becoming what our organization is like today.”
Vinn marvels at the exponential growth LoveYourself has achieved. “I’m proud that I was able to build a family from scratch. And that this family grew and grew, and they started having their own families of their own through the different committees and groups within the organization. And that each member finds solace in this family. More than the figures and cases we are able to identify and contribute to national numbers, this is something I will be more proud of”.
Vinn recalls how he never really thought of writing down long-term plans for the organization. “LoveYourself growing into what it is today has been beyond my imagination. I am humbled by a lot of volunteers who have huge responsibilities in their homes and families, and yet find spare time to help in the advocacy. This is the reason why the soul of LoveYourself is its volunteers.” Vinn, the mother of LoveYourself, is definitely one beaming with pride and gratefulness for her children, the volunteers.

Photos: Kris Tangco
Photo Editing: Mark Long
LoveYourself Volunteer Spotlight is a monthly feature on the cause- and service-oriented members of LoveYourself. We will be chatting with volunteers from all walks of life – all united in one cause. Keep checking every month to meet the different faces of LoveYourself.