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.

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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.