Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Volunteer Spotlight: Yuan, LoveYourself’s Driven Son

By Ruben Jay Alvarez

Get to know a budding community of lovers in the Philippines’ Last Frontier, and the inspiring efforts of its tireless and passionate lead, Yuan.

After an hour and 20 minutes, I finally arrived at Puerto Princesa International Airport and hopped right away into a tricycle heading to the Amos Tara Community Center.

It was a fine Wednesday morning when I reached the center. I sat myself at a cozy cafe nearby, waiting for Yuan to arrive. Yuan is the executive director of Project H4 and the overall person in-charge of Amos Tara’s daily operations. The cafe is called Hugot Cafe, which offers reasonably priced food and beverages. Lines related to personal experiences and realizations, known as hugot in Filipino, are written on the walls.

After an hour, Yuan arrived sweaty and short of breath from riding the motorcycle. I allowed him to rest and catch his breath  before we proceeded. We then talked about the organization, Amos Tara.

The Beginning

Everything started in a Facebook group created and founded by Yuan, the Bi-Out Loud Palawan, a group then comprised of around twenty men. The only purpose was  to create an online community of bisexuals from the province. After some time, the group held an HIV mass screening event focused primarily on gay and bisexual men along with the help of the Social Hygiene Clinic of Puerto Princesa. Yuan realized the necessity of creating an organization that not only caters to gay and bisexual men but also transgender men and women, sex workers, among other sectors of  the general population.

After several months of planning, Yuan and his group came up with an organization, and they named it Project H4, which is H-IV in Roman numerals. H4 stands for 4 H’s: Health, referring to prevention, which can be attained through awareness and education; Help, alluding to seeking treatment; Hope, for care and support; and Happiness, for engagement activities. On December 8, 2015, the organization was formally registered as Project H4 - Palawan Inc. in the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Yuan believes a formal organization will allow them to help more people. "If there is no formal organization, it is difficult for us to reach out to people and encourage them to know their HIV status, ergo the organization was founded," he said.

The LoveYourself Connection

The fledgling group faced challenges typical of any new organization - they sought support from more established agencies. Yuan sent e-mails to numerous people and agencies, such as the health divisions and private establishments, but these efforts proved to be futile.

In May 2015, Project H4 was invited to a forum on Reproductive Health organized by the Philippine NGO Council (PNGOC). At the event, Yuan was able to meet Dra. Eden Divinagracia, the executive director of the PNGOC for Population, Health, and Development and a member of the forum consortium. Yuan discussed his advocacy with Dra. Eden, and right away, she referred him to Vinn Pagtakhan, founder of LoveYourself Inc. for consultation.

“And from then on, we started working with LoveYourself. Opportunities just kept on coming our way since we were also introduced to Pilipinas Shell Foundation Inc. (which is one of LoveYourself’s major donors). And when they learned that we are also providing HIV testing, we were again linked to DOH MIMAROPA, which offered training for our volunteers to become peer educators. In addition, ISEAN-Hivos (Islands of Southeast Asia Network) also provided financial grants to our organization.”

Yuan believes that the synergy of these four agencies - LoveYourself, ISEAN HIVOS, DOH Mimaropa, and Pilipinas Shell Foundation - will provide an avenue for the community to get access to proper HIV education and awareness.

What is Amos Tara?

At first I thought that Amos Tara is the name of the organization. Yuan points out, however, that it is the name of the community center. Amos Tara is a Cuyonon expression which means, "Let's Go!"

“Cuyonon is the native dialect here in Palawan, and we named the center as Amos Tara to encourage the people. It's like 'Let's go, join us!' or 'Let’s go, know your status' or it can also be, 'Let's go, connect with us,'" he said.

The establishment of Amos Tara coincides with the rising incidence of HIV in Puerto Princesa. In fact, Puerto Princesa City has the highest number of reported HIV cases in the MIMAROPA region, comprised of Mindoro, Marinduque, Romblon, and Palawan, with 44 reported cases as of 2015 and 91 as of June 2016, according to DOH’s Epidemiology Bureau.

Project H4 is the first HIV advocacy organization in Palawan and aims to be the regional leader in HIV awareness and prevention through its community center, Amos Tara.

Amos Tara was inaugurated on May 2015, and during the ceremony, DOH MIMAROPA Regional Director Eduardo C.Janairo mentioned that he shared in the ideals of the center: “One of the purposes of this center will be to reach out to vulnerable individuals in the community and encourage them to voluntarily submit themselves for HIV testing,” he said.

"We welcome everyone who wants to get tested in the center. Again, Amos Tara, from the name itself, is very welcoming and inviting,” Yuan said. In fact, Yuan refers to Amos Tara as a community center rather than as an HIV Testing Clinic. "We wanted to be branded as a community center and not just as an HIV Testing Clinic. It is not about the stigma. It is the inclusivity that we want to champion. Whether you want to get tested or not, you are welcome here to connect with different people and learn and experience something new," he said.

Amos Tara is strategically located in the heart of Puerto Princesa, Palawan's capital city. It is in the proximity of 6 schools and universities. On the other side of the center is Hugot Cafe, a coffee shop popular among young locals. Amos Tara, with the aim of generating engagement and of marketing itself to the general population, has engaged several times with Hugot Cafe in activities such as live spoken poetry, board game battles, and acoustic jam sessions. Amos Tara has also actually worked out a deal with Hugot Cafe, enabling Amos Tara clients to avail of a 20% discount at the cafe after getting tested.  These are some of the initiatives of Amos Tara and Hugot Cafe to attract more people to find out their HIV status.

Rising to the Challenge

Yuan believes the organization will prosper not for his own interest but for the community they are serving. Whilst being the only trained counselor, Yuan is also the executive director of Project H4. Likening himself to Vinn Pagtakhan of LoveYourself, Yuan envisions Project H4 to have numerous volunteers. Modeled after LoveYourself, Project H4 has its own website where individuals can register to become volunteers. Opening the organization to people from all walks of life, regardless of gender, age, and social status, Yuan has also reached out to different clans and leaders from various schools in Palawan. To date, Project H4 has 64 diverse volunteers who help in the day-today operations of the center.

Despite the gargantuan tasks he faces as the head of an organization and as the only trained counselor in the group, Yuan steadfastly faces challenges, though he admits that it can be overwhelming sometimes. The vibrant founder is looking forward to further improving and honing himself through trainings conducted by the Department of Health and LoveYourself to increase the number of volunteers who are certified counselors in the organization.

With the rising number of HIV cases in the province, Yuan is in no position to be complacent. “I believe that there are more people who need to be reached out to especially the MSM community. I was shocked that Puerto Princesa being Category B with 6 to 10 cases a year, jumped to Category A last year with 44 cases,” he said. And the numbers are still increasing - according to the HIV and AIDS Registry of the Philippines (HARP), 8 additional cases were reported last August 2016 and were linked to the government hospital, Ospital ng Palawan, for treatment.

Community Relations

As the executive director, Yuan leads the organization’s different community engagements. This coming December 2016, they will be holding a public pageant called Gender Bender. The competition will be joined by different representatives from all over Palawan.

“Apart from addressing the HIV crisis by forming a community geared towards it, we want to form one that is also geared towards gender equality. As I can see, people in Puerto Princesa are becoming more open to discuss about these issues.”, Yuan  said.

It has been a lot of work for Yuan leading and running the organization. This is all because of his love for the community, and like most of the people in the advocacy, he is inspired by friends who are also people living with HIV (PLHIV) to do something to change the status quo of the HIV epidemic in Palawan. “I have friends, loved ones, infected with HIV. The epidemic is so close to home, and I want to do something to stop the spread of it, and that is why I am passionate about Project H4.

The Support, Challenges, and the Future

DOH MIMAROPA provides equipment and materials needed for testing while Pilipinas Shell Foundation Inc. (PSFI) funds the organization. With PSFI’s help, they have already reached out to 9 companies and establishments to provide HIV awareness and testing in a short span of time. One of the most remarkable and innovative moves Project H4 has done is reaching out to the Tricycle Operators and Drivers Association (TODA).

Yuan shares that tricycle drivers are actually the new “breed” of men who have sex with men (MSMs) in Puerto Princesa. Project H4 markets HIV awareness by placing stickers on tricycles. The organization also sponsors one of the several sessions the association has during its general assemblies to discuss the benefits of HIV awareness and testing.

LoveYourself, on the other hand, has shared some of its best practices and trainings to Project H4. The Triangle of Self Care was recently introduced to volunteers and has been adopted as the more achievable and more realistic way of preventing the transmission and spread of HIV.

In spite of it all, Project H4 still needs to engage local government units (LGUs) more. “We need the local government to recognize us as an existing agency so that we can be assured that we will continuously receive financial support. This is for sustainability in the long run,” Yuan said.

Yuan also cites challenges related to coordination in executing the organization’s engagement activities in schools and universities. “Their schedules are often filled up, and it is difficult to penetrate them.” The organization conducts HIV awareness activities in campuses.

Yuan sees Project H4 to be a growing organization championing HIV awareness and prevention not just in Puerto Princesa but also in the entire of Palawan and MIMAROPA region.

“I am seeing us become a satellite testing center and treatment hub for PLHIV. We were inspired by LoveYourself, therefore we are following its path. LoveYourself is in its fifth year now, so hopefully, Project H4 will also be the way we want it to be in the next 5 or 10 years,” he said.

Project H4 hopes to utilize the Amos Tara Community Center as a tool to educate and instill awareness to prevent the increase of HIV cases in Palawan.

Amos Tara is open from 10AM to 8PM from Wednesdays to Sundays and closed during Mondays and Tuesdays and declared holidays; and is located in #41 Abad Santos St., Barangay Masipag, Puerto Princesa City.

Photos: Yuan, Ruben Jay Alvarez
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.

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