Monday, October 07, 2013

LoveYourself Counselors: a Continuous Learning Experience

Soon after the successful Quickie by LoveYourself Confidential HIV testing event last September 20 at the Makati Friendship Suites, more than 70 of LoveYourself's HIV-trained counselors came together for the 1st LoveYourself Counselors' Convention on Saturday, October 5 at the Best Western Antel Suites.

The Convention was sponsored by the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine, specifically by their AIDS Reseach Group (RITM-ARG). Dr. Rossana Ditangco, head of RITM-ARG kicked off the Convention with a keynote.

She talked about the love story between RITM and LoveYourself -- how the partnership has blossomed in the past two years, starting with a basic vision from RITM on the HIV continuum of care, and LoveYourself's passion to bring it to life.

"Since LoveYourself took over the operations of the RITM Satellite Clinic in Malate as the LoveYourself Hub, the numbers of those coming to get tested for HIV at the Hub has drastically increased, " Dr. Ditangco declared with much pride.

A module on Suicide First Aid Guidelines was handled by Aladin Borja, former Program Director of NGF/Hopeline and new member of LoveYourself; while Eddy Razon, president of Pinoy Plus Association, talked about Disclosure Counseling to complete the morning.

Other modules included: Ethics in HIV Counseling (AJ Sagmit, Clinical Psychology Ph.D. Cand., Ateneo de Manila University), Basics of HIV Treatment (Dr. Carmenchu Echiverri-Villavicencio, Infectious Diseases, Makati Medical Center), and Stress Management for HIV Counselors (Dona Esteban, Founder, Yin Yoga Philippines).

"We understand the need for further training of our counselors so we can continuously improve the level of service we are able to provide the community, " explained Anthony Decoste, LoveYourself's new Director for Counseling and Education. "We intend to do more of these conventions to keep our counselors well-informed and with the best skills to handle people who come to us."

Joining the LoveYourself HIV testing counselors were a couple of participants from the Quezon City Health Department, Yoga for Life and ACHIEVE who were invited to the Convention.

Fittingly, one of LoveYourself's own members, Edgie Guevarra, shared this open letter to LoveYourself on the day of the Convention:
To all our dear LoveYourself counselors, 
I am Edgie, a LoveYourself member for some months now, part of batch Synergy. I came in as a client last Quickie, and this was the first time I had undergone HIV testing with LoveYourself. This letter I am writing you is a contemplation of my experiences and thoughts from thereon, from the perspective of a client-member, as you may put it. 
I’d like to share with you some thoughts about this experience: 
First is that of gratitude. I joined LoveYourself for reasons that may not be as different as with most members: having close encounters with PLHIV friends, some of whom knew too late and have already moved on; I also had my own scare of getting infected. For these reasons that are not so very different, we grouped together to form a stronger force that helps each other and the community fight HIV. In my opinion, you are at the forefront of this fight—at the very core of LoveYourself — which now, more than ever, has been very effective in reaching out to help more MSMs. You are the people who can really bring about behavioral change—to empower the clients to love themselves more—because you approach the client face-to-face, able to know their needs, wants, and dreams. In my experience, after my test, I can only feel gratitude. You bring LoveYourself to new heights, not just because I feel it as a member, but because experienced being a client who can confide my feelings to people who really care, can relate, and will not judge me for my actions. 
Next is that of admiration. You see, my profession is in a very technical field, and I talk to computers for most of the day. I think I chose this profession because I do not have to deal with anything I have limited control. You, on the other hand, chose and continue to choose to deal with the unfathomable psyche of each client. I can only wonder how you muster the courage to tell a client that his result is reactive; how you reveal yourself each time to a person you just briefly met--to empower them--and in the process becoming as vulnerable as your client.
Lastly, I want to share the idea of hope. Recently, I have been a member of the Case Management Team which guides clients before the test. I have been conversing with our clients, and I can strongly feel their anxiety and fears even just through SMS exchanges. You know what I tell them at the end of the conversation? That taking the test and knowing their status is the best action to take, and no matter what the outcome is, LoveYourself, through their assigned counselors will be there to support them. This idea of hope sends a very strong message, because the danger is very real. But I also have this fear that this is a double-edged sword. As I see it, there can be two objects of hope in this case: the first and the strongest would be hoping that their result turns out non-reactive, and the second is that hoping that they are somehow ready to accept reality if they find out that they are infected by HIV. I do not know what happens after testing, you are in the best position to know each story, but we all know that either way can turn out for the worst. This is why, I believe, that counseling is a profession.

I don't doubt that having the heart to help and empower others is at the core of each and everyone of you. No detractor can contest that. A counselor may have imperfections, but he has what we call in Filipino: PUSO. Others may say that you don't have the credentials. I dare say you have the capacity to relate, give insights and fight the battle not for, but with the clients. They say that we are rushing grow bigger, but I would tell them that urgency is a virtue they have to learn. If not now, then when? Caring for the other doesn't stop or slow down. It can only grow to be a positive impetus to reach out to more people who need nurturing, and an effort to take on a different perspective: that life can be liveable and so much better amidst the difficulties in life--not just for the client, but for you, me, and everyone. 
Which is why I implore you, my dear counselors, to take every opportunity to care more, to empower better. To engage in dialogue and enrich your insights, using the experiences that you and those around you have gone through. To be able to say the right things to the right person at the right time. To give hope when others see none, and be a beacon of light when there can only be darkness. 
This Saturday, LoveYourself will hold a counselor's convention. My thoughts is for a hope that you dare to embrace yourself and your fellow counselors, and recharge yourself of the passion you have been driven from the start. Care to widen your sense of meaning in life through the eyes of another. Lastly, a hope for you to continue to share yourself to those who need not only acceptance, but understanding and love--flowing through you, and eventually perpetuates in the core of everyone you have touches. 
Thank you very much. 
LoveYourself member and aspiring counselor