Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Journey of a Thousand Smiles Began with a Single Beki

It was June of 2011, a friend invited me to a birthday dinner somewhere in Greenhills, in  a nice Thai restaurant owned and operated by a gay couple named James and James. There I met several interesting people, mostly gay men, mostly members of the alta gays, as in alta sociedad (spoken with the obligatory lisp). But in the middle of all the chi-chi stuff going on, I noticed a very different species floating around, beckling beki of bekilandia proportions. His name, I would later find out, was Vinn Pagtakhan.

More than a birthday dinner, it was actually some sort of a meeting to discuss a new, emerging group that wanted to organize a community of volunteers to arrest the silent yet mind-blowing growth of HIV prevalence among young, gay and bisexual men in the country. I was there because I was personally very concerned. Earlier that month I had my very first HIV test, and while the result was negative (surprisingly!) I regardlessly broke down in front of my nurse-counselor. Why? Earlier that year, I’ve had 4 friends mysteriously and suddenly dying one after the other, dropping like flies. One day they were partying with me, the next I was in black attending their funeral. By the end of 2011, I had a total of 8 friends who died in much the same mysterious way. The whole thing was gradually but surely shaking me to the core.

Vinn, at that time, was fresh from winning a major international award that made him the first Filipino honored with the title Twitter Nurse of the Year. He was recognized for using  Social Media in furthering the honor of being in the caring profession. He wanted to use the whirlwind attention suddenly swirling around him for a good cause -- and that was it, he thought of putting together what he initially called “V.I.N.N. Advocacy” -- the acronym meant Venereal Infection Nuisance Nursing. Of course I had a gurgling, violent reaction when I first learned about the group’s name. Ang chaka! And so we searched for an alternative name.

It turned out that the choice of name was very critical. It pretty much represented what the first 6 members of the group had in mind as to how we would like to approach the issue of HIV in the Philippines. Yes there was cause for alarm, and naturally, fear -- but each of us believed that these are so far removed from the desired end-state. We then went for its polar opposite, instead of fear we thought of love. It resonated with our naturally beki ways. All 6 of us pioneer members wanted our name to be more positive, more cheerful, and more hopeful. We also wanted it to be more authentically representing who we really are deep inside. So we coined a tagline, which eventually became our official name too: Love Yourself.

From then on, we started our first baby steps, and worked our way into the HIV advocacy arena. We did not have experience but we kind of knew that the combination of people in our then small organization was unique and relevant. We felt some kind of group spirit brewing, it was inspiring, moving, and most of all, happy and cheerful. We believed that while fear was powerful, it pales in comparison to what love can do. Each pioneering member contributed so much value to the whole, but what Vinn represented was the over-all canvass of respect, positivity, connectedness, and most of all, perkiness! His leadership was different -- he allowed us to argue with him, we taunted him, sometimes even thought his ideas were stupid, but everyone knew he brought something extremely important to the table. He carried and personified the spirit of Love Yourself.

The Love Yourself spirit was so strong and attractive that I attempted to codify it. I knew then that as we grew the organization, it was imperative to describe the spirit in words so people can understand and imbibe it more easily. The spirit has to transcend the usual messages, they are important, but can in time, lose its power: get tested, practice safer sex, use condoms, etc. I summarized it into 3 main points. Dare. Care. Share.

Dare is a powerful word, it carries a punch, much like how the spirit starts off -- with self-awareness. To dare is to jolt ourselves to awareness: to be authentic with oneself, to know, embrace, and most importantly, be who you really are. Care means to be in constant and active pursuit of one’s well-being. It is both allowing the natural enjoyment of life’s rich goodness, and being mindful of one’s personal safety and security. Share, then, is a natural consequence of being authentic and mindful. To share is to be bigger than oneself, to connect with others and feel one with everyone -- in happiness and sorrow, sharing is such a wonderful, wonderful thing for a magnanimous soul. Dare. Care. Share. To be authentic, mindful, and magnanimous. This is the spirit of Love Yourself.

From 6 pioneering members, after only one year, our constant practice of loving oneself has brought so many good accomplishments.  We have conducted HIV classes and learning sessions to 1,245 people. Our HIV awareness websites have received 3.7 million pageviews. A total of 1,035 people have taken advantage of our free HIV testing and counseling services. We have assisted 112 newly diagnosed people living with HIV. We have developed into a 100% community-based organization with 134 trained peer educators and 110 certified HIV counselors -- all young professionals and volunteers, earning nothing, not a single centavo, for the education, counseling, and other services they provide.

Over and above all these numbers, my favorite accomplishment of Love Yourself is inspiring so many people to love themselves more -- to really embrace themselves, take care of themselves, and laugh and smile more. This for me, is the grander accomplishment.

One year old and still growing, Love Yourself is like a journey of a thousand smiles, and indeed, it began with a single happy beki.

Congratulations Vinn, and the rest of Love Yourself!


This was written by Migs, the Manila Gay Guy, in honor of Love Yourself's first anniversary.