Thursday, December 20, 2007

Religion and Politics: Good Thing It is Not a Dinner Party

The effects of the Abortion Ban and Why it Got Passed

In 2006 the Nicaraguan Legislature voted in a law to out right ban abortions – even if the mother’s life is at risk. Former president Enrique Bolanos signed this law into the record books after much contested debate. In conversations and in human rights publications it became apparent that the timing of the vote was the critical factor.

 The issue of abortions was thought to be completed as the law was already conservative in nature, an abortion could only be obtained after three doctors confirm the mother’s life is at risk. However, the issue was revisited in the months prior to the Presidential Election of 2006. UN representatives and Nicaraguan medical associations pleaded for the bill to be postponed until after elections but their voices fell on deaf ears. The Sandinistas, the former revolutionary party that has always maintained the rights of the people as its battle cry, decided to support the proposed bill in fear that they would lose the votes of the Catholic and religious groups, which are numerous throughout the land. Current President Daniel Ortega, a long time advocate of limited-abortion rights, crossed aisles and used the issue to unite himself with the Catholic Church, something that many agree won him the election. This is simply an example of politics done wrong, or sadly right, and it's not limited to Nicaragua. Political leaders changing stances or building platforms to gain votes and not because they believe it is right or just for the many. What has come from this bill?

Many women’s rights group have launched campaigns that profess the bill as limiting the rights of women. A rare victory that received national headlines in 2003 was the dismissal of criminal charges against the parents of a 9 year old rape victim and the doctor who performed the abortion. The issue still remains as a topic of closed quarter conversation. One banner that stayed in my mind was across from the public university and read “Adolescentes that are pregnant were violated, give women their right and say yes to therapeutic abortions”. Women of all ages have suffered from the banning of therapeutic abortions. One women’s rights group uses the story of a 22 yr old woman named Olga who died from complications of an entopic pregnancy, which is when the fertilized egg nests outside the uterus; thus losing any chance of survival and gravely putting the mother’s life at risk. Doctors in the hospital hesitated to act stating that they felt their hands were tied.

In regards to HIV, I was told about the plight of one of the women living with the virus who does not have many options to consider. While struggling with the everyday battle against poverty and the mental anxiety of finding out one’s HIV status, the woman has found out she is 2 months pregnant. Her fears are serious. What if the baby has HIV? Who will take care of it if I succumb to the disease? Can my body take the start of treatment with being pregnant? How will I afford the costs of supplemental medication and food with raising a child? In her mind she has decided that a therapeutic abortion is the only answer but where can she go? She does not have the money like some of the wealthy to fly to the USA or other countries to get the procedure done. She does not have the money to hire a lawyer to plead her case in the courts or pay for a doctor at a private clinic to secretly conduct the abortion. The most realistic option she has is to get what is called a “back-alley abortion”. These illegal and unsanitary methods directly put the woman’s life in danger and can lead to horrible birth defects if not successful.

This abortion ban is only one example of the aligned relationship that takes place between the church and the state in Nicaragua and, as a result, women, impoverished women to be more precise, are the ones paying the real price. Instead of the $500 for a plane ride to the USA and how much an abortion costs, the Nicaraguan woman who can’t afford this pays the price of putting her life in danger because of a law that was passed in fear of losing votes. Sadly this has become the nature of politics; do whatever will get the vote or keep you in office.  

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Inauguration Marks Big Step Forward

I had the pleasure of attending the inauguration of the project entitled “Talking about HIV and AIDS, Strategy for the Empowerment of People Affected”. Before I comment on the afternoon I should first explain the jist of the project. This project formally establishes the HIV Self Help Group that is run in the region known as the Occidente, the three northwest regions of Nicaragua. The project is funded jointly by a German NGO, Arbeiter Samariter Bund Deustschland, and the German Government; both had representatives that addressed the crowd that had gathered and the members of the HIV group. The group’s office has been established in CISAS-León and will be autonomous. That said, the group will count on CISAS’ continued support to coordinate events and maintain a high level of performance.

Having a peer group of support is a vital component to living or battling any disease or ailment. This becomes even more essential with HIV and AIDS because of the heavy stigma and perception that abounds throughout any culture and place in the world. This group already has served as a guiding light and a place to gain hope battling for one’s rights. It is the hope of all the parties involved, that the existence of this group will mark a change in the way HIV is perceived in these communities and in Nicaragua.

The Group’s coordinator, a woman who has become a beacon of strength for many in the Group, addressed the crowd about the importance of solidarity and their goals. It was a speech full of passion that marked the objectives of the Group, but more importantly, it acknowledged that the rights of people who live with HIV are the same as those who don’t.

Both German officials that spoke touched on the power of solidarity, be it local or international, and did so in a manner that was heartfelt. The segments of their speeches that stuck with me depict certain truths about HIV both globally and locally. The representative from the German Embassy stated how for the first time in a long time HIV rates rose in Germany, and how it shocked a lot of people. He acknowledged that the fight and struggle against HIV and AIDS is perpetual and demands continued attention. In the face of the pandemic complacency is simply failure. The other German was the NGO representative and he closed his speech in an eerie manner that demonstrates the reality of living with the virus here. He stated that they know some of the group members will no longer be alive to see the end of the project, which is three years from now. The matter of fact style did not sit well with me and no one can ever blame the gentleman for sugar coating the truth.

This Group is much needed and the work they have already done and will continue to do is inmeasurable. I want to stress that the inauguration was a success and a reason to celebrate. However, the last thing I want to mention was something that I continually thought about while seated in the front row. During the speeches and the songs I imagined myself seated with a few of the HIV positive friends I made at Open Hand and the people I interviewed. I could only imagine their response to some of the choruses to the songs and the closing line by the NGO official. The songs, created for the event, seemed to me to be a little out of place. A good deal emphasized the fear one should have of contracting the “terrible HIV virus” and how if you contract it all your “happiness will leave”. These MAY be true (especially when treatment is adequate at best), but with all the HIV positive people in the crowd and the marking of the HIV Self Help Group, I believe all the stress should have been on living with HIV, solidarity, the breaking of stigma, and to the assurance of equal rights. However, I soon realized that I was not with those same people, and the mindset they have is unfortunately not realized here yet.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

La Purísima - Halloween Meets the Virgin Mary

National Holiday Celebrates the Immaculate Conception of Mary

I already know that Halloween gets its origins from being on the eve of all Saints Day, so the background is semi based on religion. However, somewhere through the years the focus changed to the tales of witches and ghosts and the doling out of candy. Kids get dressed up and yell " trick or treat" laughing. Now flash to the feast of the immaculate conception of Mary. It was made official by Pop Sixtus IV in 1476 and has been celebrated in Nicaragua for 150 years. Something tells me that not much has changed with the feast.

Boom Bang Boom . . . The fireworks, bottle rockets, and firecrackers start ar 6am and ring for 15 minutes. This will go on every 6 hours for the next 2 days no matter if day or night. Sporadically throughout the day you hear them fired and pop, but nothing as exciting as the first noon on the first day of celebration. Boom Ding Boom Ding... At noon the fireworks are accompanied by the bells of the churches that have towers in Central León. This signals to all that it is time to break from work and prepare for the Purísima.

For the 4 hours that we are at work nothing at all gets done. The excitement has been building all week. This year the 2 day celebration starts on a friday and is marked as the 150th anniversary. Moreover, this city is where the first ever celebration took place and the Church from which it started is one block from my house. Everyone asks me time and time again if I am going to yell today. At first I kid and say of course not, and I am met with an inquisitive "but you said you were catholic?". Well, I had to learn the jist of things and of course what to yell.

You subsitute "trick or treat" with a phrase "Who causes so much happiness?" that garners the response "The Conception of Mary", then you reply "Long live the Virgin". Whereas on Halloween the houses who are participating leave their lights on or some sign that they are Halloweeners, such as a Jack-o-Latern or tombstone, here the houses are signaled by an altar dedicated to Mary. Rich or poor the people put together ornate altars that feature christmas lights, fake flowers, painted backgrounds, and statues of Mary and Saints (see photos). Also instead of getting candy everywhere you go, "yellers"(as they are called) get everything from socks, pens, candles, to little sweets. Perhaps the most telling thing I recieved was from the Church of the Mother of Mercy, which handed out peeled sugar cane. It is a symbol of Nicaragua´s past, present, and future. From the sugar cane comes Nicaragua´s orld famous rum and also sugar, which in the future could be used such as in Brazil as fuel. It turs out to be quite the tastey treat, and something traditionally done for over a century. The Church also had an altar which had a painting of God with a halo of Red and Black, the traditional colors of the Sandinista political/revolutionary party.

I am not sure how to react to the entire 2 day feast. It is pretty obvious that their is very little separation between Church and State here. The TV channels and radios continually yell the phrases and President Ortega does so as well on TV and even has hundreds of people yelling at his house as he hands them bags of treats and then they are shoved out of the line. All these people are hailing the mother of Jesus and venerating her purity and sanctity, but then again women´s rights and the rule of Machismo plague civil and social society. On the one hand it is nice to see so many peope celebrating a holy day of obligation, but then again the churches are not exactly filled. In the end it would appear that a good deal are talking about Mary, whose feast day celebrates her sinless life, but just thinking about booze, free gifts, and having a good time.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Joining the Effort

Door to Door in Rural Nicaragua

Nothing prepares you to face poverty. Everywhere you go, you are surrounded by flies and the smell of burning dried leaves. You turn a corner on a dirt road and you have a 3yr old boy with no shirt and no shoes by himself staring at you in bewilderment because of your complexion or presence in his tiny town. I walk up to him, smile and rub his head. A group of kids 8 - 11 in age come prancing along smiling ear to ear as I start with an hola amigos. Their smiles and laughter roll back my memory. The CISAS clown troup had dotted my nose and cheeks with red paint before I began my rounds with the Ministry of Health workers and CISAS volunteers.

House to shack, door to rusted metal leaning over the opening where the door should be, we go distributing a pamphlet that tells the bare bones of what HIV is, how it is transmitted, how we can protect ourselves, and how to properly use a condom. Along with the paper comes a pair of condoms. After doing 3 houses in pairs, I am told to take a pack of both and start down a 4 foot wide path that is lined with fences on both sides made of barbed wire or cactus. I´m with Oscar, the most well built and tall Nicaragua I have met thus far. A bartender by night and a community health intern by day. As I walk the path, making sure not to step in the stream that resides in the middle, my mind goes back to Mountains Beyond Mountains and the story of Dr. Farmer doing just this, but instead of only providing awareness and 2 condoms, he brings life saving medicine and years of medical expertise.

I struggle through my first house. The 20 year old male would rather talk about the Bronx and whats up on MTV then Sexually Transmitted Diseases. I get him back on track when I tell him about the free condoms. Mission accomplished - he asked for 2 more pamphlets for his brothers and extra condoms. My next house, like many here, are little shops in the front to get drinks, snacks, candy etc, and then the living room behind the counters. I turn to the older gentleman and Oscar turns to the woman selling him an egg and dry rice. I try to explain the science behind how the elderly man should not be using two condoms at a time. As I talk, the woman laughing says, give him all he needs he sleeps around too much with girls that are in their 20s. His leathery and worn skin smiles displaying only a handful of teeth. Is this the face of a man that a 20 yr old woman is going to give herself to? Do I dare mention the rights of women? I spend extra time telling him how a condom is really the only protection if you are going to be sexually active. He smiles again, asks for 10 condoms and thanks myself and Oscar for the advice.

On the half hour ride back to León, Oscar and I discuss how there just weren´t enough pamphlets and condoms, but that doesn´t mean there is no hope. We over hear one of the women from the ministry of health speaking about a 20 yr old girl who actually told her how HIV is transmitted and told her to save the condoms for others in the neighborhood that will need them; in her own words, "I have plenty of those trust me".

Sunday, December 2, 2007

World AIDS Festival

Festival a Success Despite Distractions

Picture this, a two lane street a block away from the heart of the town plaza, where the biggest church in Central America resides. On one side of the street is one of the many buildings of the UNAN (Nicaragua’s public university), which is the site of the Global AIDS Festival. The other is the Church of the Mother of Mercy (the patron saint of the city).

The festival begins with the reading of participating groups and then an address from the leader of Leon’s self-help group for people living with HIV. With great courage and charisma she stands in front of the microphone and delivers a speech promoting the solidarity needed to face this virus that affects the person, community, and the world. She thanks all for coming and putting on this festival to acknowledge World AIDS Day. She leaves to the sound of applause while two 7 year old girls dressed in brightly free flowing dresses take the stage. This is the first of what will be 4 different groups of girls dancing the traditional folklore steps that Nicaraguans take great pride in. After resounding applause the CISAS clowns get introduced. Five minutes into the act, the bells of the Catholic Church of Mercy begin to clamor creating a battle of sound waves between the voices of the clowns and the sound of the bell. The bell tolls for approximately ¾ the show, obscuring some of the vital information being brought to the audience and people passing by. “Tattoos (DONG) that aren’t (DONG) cleaned before (DONG) ….” I am sure you get the picture.

The clowns put on the same show as in the terminal, but this time also added a demonstration on how to properly put on a condom, take off a condom, and throw away a condom. They also got a volunteer from the audience to replicate the procedure for a prize. When there is very limited sexual education in the school systems, and the culture does not lend itself to families talking about sexual relations and practicing safe sex, then upon who does it fall on to obtain life saving information? In this instance it is the world of non-governmental and non-profit organizations.

Throughout the 2 hour festival the bells ring on and off to the point that some people begin to laugh. Would the church blatantly have the bells ringing to overshadow the speakers directed toward the crowded streets? Why did the bells only ring during the clown show and other acts that had something to do with HIV awareness? Did the bell ringer just like folklore music and that’s the reason why the bell was silent during those acts? I had plenty of questions, so I marched into the church! I had a hundred different things that my Catholic education has taught me swirling around my head. Matthew 25, Jesuit mottos, the golden rule, all emphasizing on how this church should in no way be attempting to silence what is taking place outside its door. I walked through the beautiful wooden church doors in search of a simple answer to a simple question; do the bells normally ring like this? The head priest was saying mass and the best answer I could get stated that mass was going on and that there is no rhyme or reason to the bells – they just ring. I thought of the many Catholic priests, nuns, and the different orders, like the Jesuits and the Maryknolls, that would be greatly dismayed if the bells were utilized as a means to silence promoting World AIDS Day or educating the people.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

A Clown Show with a Serious Message

Community Health Promotors Doing Their Part

A 40 year old man:
¨Vamo Amigo, ¿solo uno? Necesito otro¨
Translation = ¨Come on friend, only one? I need another¨

A 10 year old boy:
¨Por favor, quiero traer una a mi madre¨
Translation = ¨Please, I want to bring one to my mother¨

What it means...

Reproductive and sexual education is having an affect on people when the issues are brought to them and resources are provided.

I had the priviliege today of watching the younger generations of Nicaraguans attempt to change the future of their country by reaching out to teach their community. After a 20 minute program, adolescents came to get the free phamplets and condoms. Middle aged men followed asking for extras, and lastly the women approached slowly and quietly asking for some as well. By the end, over 200 condoms had gone out, 150 Awareness phamplets, and 100 larger cartoon style booklets.

As we walked through the streets people stared at the brighly colored faces of 10 teenaged nicaraguans. The stares continued as we entered the dimly lit market that welcomes you to the bus terminals. Along with the market comes the smoke and smell of fried food and the street children from 8 to 11 selling oranges or asking for a cordoba (1/18th of a dollar). I turned to see the line of intrigued people of all ages follow our crew of clowns. We settled in the middle of it all and the show began.

Sí!!! or No!!!! That is what was yelled in unison after short skits about how HIV is transmitted. Props like plates and cups showed that HIV is not transmitted through sharing forks, cups, or through saliva. Sneezing, handshakes, and using a public restroom were among the skits that followed. The Sí concentrated on sharing needles (see side bar slideshow) and the use of condoms to pratice safe sex. I was pleasantly surprised at the response after the show ended. In the face of poverty free things are either eagerly grabbed for or hesitantly accepted or denied. However, having a 40 yr old man ask me for a second condom, a bus driver asking if he could have 25 phamplets for this passengers, an elderly woman ask me for two condoms for her daughters, and then two teenage males asking me how they can join the clowns, it left a mark that shows how even the most serious of conversations and causes can be done in a creative and imaginative way.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

First Impression is Impressive

Lots of Progress in 16 Months

I entered the office I sat in 16 months ago. The feel was the same, the atmosphere was the same, but it was evident that things have changed. For starters, in the past it was myself, Martha, and Ingrid talking and working on two out dated computers that were not connected to the Internet. Now the same room was filled with 7 people and 4 work stations; 3 of which boast computers connected to the Internet. The next thing was the people. They have added paid staff and their numbers of volunteers has increased, both in terms of locals and forgieners. 7 people in room that used to be 3 - 2 from Germany, 1 from Spain, 3 from Nicaragua, and 1 from the USA. All speaking spanish and planning different programs, flyers, and activities to promote health in León and in the rural communities.

Tomorrow I will go along with community health promotors who will be handing out condoms, awareness phamphlets, and putting on a clown show about the methods of transmission. A common misconception among some Nicaraguans is the transmission of HIV through public restrooms, which is an area I have been told is incorporated rather comically in the skit. When I last departed this group of promotors and ´clowns´were beginning their training, so it will be extra special to see how they have come full circle.

The progress at CISAS has also had its effect on the HIV Self Help Group. Today I had the chance to talk to one of the ladies I had originally met at the start up of the HIV Self Help group. The shy woman I had met in the past was gone. She had been transformed into a leader, a spokeswoman, and she spoke about the changes that have come over the last year with pride. Although they have lost some members due to the virus and some even because of arguments, the group has grown significantly and even has a second group in the city of Chinandega. Chinandega is a more rural city that is notorious for its poverty and garbage dumps. On Dec 6th the self help group will be opening their new office, which is a room upstairs and connected to CISAS. She was very excited about the new room and the phone line being put in to establish a HIV hotline for people to call with all kinds of questions or concerns. Something as simple as a phone number to dial can make a world of difference, especially in a place where the fear of discrimination and isolation runs so high.

Tomorrow: Promoting HIV Awareness in the Streets of León

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

2nd Stop - Nicaragua

An Experience, A Catalyst, A Return

The international leg of the project will begin with Nicaragua. I will be volunteering at an non-governmental organization (NGO) based in Leon called CISAS (Centro de Informacion y Servicio de Asesoria en Salud). 

This is the organization in which I interned two summers ago for a month working in two different projects. The first was drug prevention through sports for street teens. The second was aiding a newly formed HIV self help group. It is also where the bulk of my idea for this book arose. I was conducting a service learning project that would allow me to understand how NGOs are run, funded, and some of the services they provide. The stories I heard in my daily conversations with one of the projects stayed with me upon my return. These stories were very different and yet similar to the ones I heard in Connecticut or Newark while volunteering at soup kitchens or doing HIV awareness campaigns. One day in my car after a long discussion with Fr. Ric Rsycavage SJ, a lightbulb went off and the project was born.

When I set up this project I looked forward to coming back to CISAS and capturing the spirit of the people and the story of their lives. It is with much anticipation that I return. 

Tomorrow's Blog:  Returning to CISAS 

Friday, November 23, 2007

Giving Thanks and the "Power of a Pet"

Before anyone can begin to eat a morsel of thanksgiving dinner, my family goes around the table to say what they are thankful during the year. My family members give thanks for the support of each other and a clean bill of health over the last year. Family and health - two vital components that everyone would be thankful for. As the plates were getting smaller and smaller, the talk at the table changed to my time spent in San Francisco. I had already shown photos of Open Hand and explained what I was doing but in light of Thanksgiving my mind floated to what the people I met would be thankful for. 

The more I thought about it, I began to think of the interviews and conversations I had throughout my time at Open Hand. There seemed to be a reoccurring theme that flowed through much of those discussions. Volunteers, staff, and clients alike were all thankful for Open Hand and the reasons varied. Volunteers were thankful to an organization that made them feel as though they are making a difference. It is not difficult to understand, every facet that volunteers take part in is tangible - you are cutting mushrooms for a sauce that will feed people, you are peeling cabbage that will be placed in the free grocery store, or you are assembling hot meals that will be delivered to the front door of someone who needs it. 

The staff repeatedly mentioned how this is the best job they have had because they believe in the mission and the objectives. From the clients services to the kitchen staff or janitors, I either ate lunch and picked their brain or worked along side them and did the same. They understand the need and the services provided. One person pointed to the noted difference she sees in the clients that inspires her every day. It is easy to see that these people are thankful for finding a place that they believe in and doing a job that gives back to the community in visible ways.

The clients carry perhaps the most unique and varied perspective. The simplest of answers illustrates the profound effects that come with receiving a hot meal, quality food, or being treated with dignity and respect. Some responses that resonate now in my head highlight the conversation and handshake that takes place at the grocery store counter. "How are you doing today?", "How was your weekend?", "Are you sure you don't want eggs?!" it all fits under the notion of solidarity. Everyone walks together, no one is ever alone. Another area of thanks was the high quality and level of treatment that occurs in the Bay Area. People mentioned how they would be terrified to go visit or live in Texas or Oklahoma because they've heard about the levels of stigma that hinder a person's life experience. One called San Francisco the Globe's Mecca of HIV care and for this reason they will never leave the city. 

"Power of a Pet"

The last topic of thanks I put aside in it's own paragraph because it struck me by surprise and afterwards made a great deal of sense. In a conversation that occurred while bagging frozen chicken legs, I learned about the power of a pet. It was something that came up in a couple of later discussions and each time the transformation was the same. The constant is a person who is in the depths of a dark depression contemplating existence and not feeling motivated to maintain the healthy lifestyle or keep up with the daily regiments that can save and prolong their life. The variable is a kitten, a dog, or an animal that bonds to the person. The results are a transformed person who is highly motivated to stay healthy in order to care for the animal. The reciprocal value is the love and affection the animal shows no matter how tired, upset, or depressed the person is.  I call this the power of the pet because the lasting impression the animal has on the person is nothing short of amazing. 

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Odds, Ends, and Observations

Out for a Walk - Reality sets in

A few days ago I accompanied Robin and Sarah on a "route" to hand deliver hot meals to people in the program. These people get one hot meal a day - 365 days a year. The route was 10 stops in the Tenderloin district, considered one of the lower income and impoverished districts of San Francisco. It is actually the surrounding blocks around Open Hand, and after being given the safety run down, I was told that this would be quite the experience -they were right.

To begin, the streets of the Tenderloin have at least 3 homeless or very close to homeless people per street.  I am accustomed to seeing homeless people from my days in Jersey City and taking the train into NYC, but never to this extent. After asking around it seems like there is a need for shelters and organizations that aid the homeless. That said, it was difficult to walk into nightly hotels to deliver a meal and pass by so many people who could use one as well. Although I had been warned that the living conditions would be adequate at best, I was taken aback when one lady opened the door and the room was simply an old lazy boy chair, a small coffee table, and a dresser. The phenomenon that I was completely unaware of is called - SROs (Single Room Occupancies). At best it's a room with a bed, private bathroom, and a TV to escape reality or pass the time. At worst it's a bug infested room, with no bed, and a bathroom shared by the entire hall. One place had carpets torn and full of stains, a stagnant smell of cigarette smoke, and an electrical box with exposed wires awaiting a potential life threatening tragedy. 

The deliveries are met with a polite smile and thank you. Some talk of how much the meal means to them, others are too shy or embarrassed to open the door enough to see their face. After giving a warm meal of beef stew with rice and steamed broccoli to a Spanish woman in her late 50s, I was left wondering what circumstances had led her to this path? My personal pursuit to understand wanted to ask 20 different questions or somehow express my solidarity and concern, but in the 15 seconds it takes to hand a meal over I could only muster a touch of the hand and a "I hope you have a good day" in Spanish. On the walk to the next stop I kept thinking about what I would like to ask her, like was she aware of the different organizations that could help her, but in the middle of my thinking it was already time to ring the next door bell.

It does appear though that something is finally being done. The city of San Francisco is now slowly buying the privately owned SRO hotels and is giving up to 50 year leases to non-profits and church groups to set up SROs that have social programs. We went into one, and it had signs for free TB tests, $10 Flu shots, an eating healthy seminar, as well as a birthday board. These places at least show concern for the person and attempt to address pertinent health issues. In my opinion it is certainly a step in the right direction. 


One of the great things about Open Hand is the amazing amounts of volunteers that allow the organization to run as smooth, efficient, and effective as possible. I have met people, like John from the slide show, who have been volunteering here for 20 years! This seasoned veteran is a fixture on the assembly line and brings an open mind and friendly smile to all who come to volunteer or utilize the services of Open Hand. Many of the volunteers have been there over 10 years and all comment on how much a difference the place makes in the community.  Also, many of the volunteers are a wealth of knowledge regarding HIV in San Francisco. Whether its discussing their personal stories, such as of losing a partner or why they volunteer, or how the perceptions have changed over the last 10 to 20 years, I gain invaluable information simply talking or being around them. I thank them for their candidness, honesty, and interest in my project. 

Interview Completed

I am very satisfied and excited about the interviews. My first completed interview was not only inspiring, but it provides a very realistic and insightful perspective on what living with HIV is like in San Francisco. As I have been told several times, San Francisco is the best place in the world to live if you are HIV +, yet there are still hardships that are endured that can be avoided. For instance, the manner in which this man was told by his doctors of his status had lasting effects - no preparation, no counseling, just an "oh by the way..." and then a silent exit out of the room. Also, something that really stayed with me after the interview was the discussion on how faith is involved in this person's life and the changing issues over the last 10 years in San Francisco. This gentleman is a prime example of how non-profits can really help a person through  battling not only a "terminal virus" (as he put it) but also the shock and depression that follows testing positive. Furthermore, the depth of the responses attest that HIV is still a vital issue in the United States.  With the advent and accessibility of Antiretroviral medication, those with the virus can live typically healthy and longer lives. As a result, the mindset of people in this region, and the government of the US, has relegated HIV to the back burner. It is thought of now as a chronic and treatable disease and not as threatening to society, which is reflected in the gov't's budget cuts for NGOs and NPOs that provide HIV care (specifically, lowering the amount of money provided by the Ryan White Care Act). These issues and more are voiced in the interview, and intriguingly by someone who is both HIV + and works for Open Hand.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Beauty of Lunch

Lunch. For 8 years in grammar school I had it at 12 noon sharp. We would file in, sit down, eat and laugh.  In high school, I had it at 12:25pm, and the discussions centered on sports, class work, and how people were going to get home. In college, lunch become a matter of convenience -whenever or where ever best fit the schedule. However, lunch time now has taken on a new meaning. It is a time to learn, listen, and attempt the process of understanding.

For starters, the lunch room at Project Open Hand and its atmosphere is a prime example of what one of my mentors would call "a beautiful thing". But how should it be classified or described? Everyone, including staff, volunteers from all different origins (developmentally disabled, retirees, college students, and people who are HIV positive), and administrators, comes together in the same room to break bread and discuss whatever topics that come to mind; what is the mayor doing? did you catch the Raiders game? how is so and so?. Furthermore, all the food choices are the exact same as those provided as meals for the "clients". Is this a small window into Marxist communism where class is not an issue and just the good of the whole prevails? Is this what politicos call an egalitarian society where everyone comes to the table with the same respect, rights, and dignity? Perhaps, it's the best example of the Christian moral doctrine that stresses how each of us is made in God's own image and therefore are united, equal, and together in solidarity. 

My lunch conversations are where a great deal of my understanding about how HIV, both past and present, has impacted the lives of those in this city. For instance, a simple question "how did you guys hear about this place?" led me into a world I had never really attempted to place myself into. All three men at the table had lost a partner to AIDS, and all three men recounted the pain and sorrow of watching a loved one pass with an inability to help. They spoke of a time where HIV was still horribly misunderstood and long term treatment was not an option. One recalled the plight of his partner and simply stated, "I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy". They then recounted how being a caregiver consumed their lives as their partners worsened. One was lucky enough to stumble onto a simple support group for AIDS Caregivers run by a Jesuit who had left the society. He spoke of the group as a life line that granted him a peace of mind and de-stressed his daily routine. This conversation lasted less than 10 minutes, but it put on display the impact this disease has had on this community and the toll it has taken on the psyche of homosexual men in San Francisco.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Open Hand, Open Hearts

A Perfect Fit

After volunteering two full days at Open Hand, I completely understand why they came so highly recommended as a great place for me to consider. I understood that their mission was to provide nutritious meals for people who have HIV, critically ill, or elderly, but, after spending three hours cutting fresh peppers of all colors, picking rosemary, and then cutting Oyster mushrooms for a sauce to top roasted chicken breast, I soon realized that this place was serious about providing quality, wholesome, and healthy meals.

The wholesome mentality is reinforced in everything they do. They compost everything possible, which brings tens of thousands of dollars back into the organization, and they save energy with two donated solar panels on the roof. But let me get back to the food! Some items that caught me off guard were Wolfgang puck soups, flavored yogurts, raw frozen chicken, yams, tomatoes, and 4 different types of milk! The absolute majority of the food contains no high fructose corn syrup and is full (and i mean full) of grains, oats, and heart healthy choices.  Oh and talking about choices, they provide: Regular, bland (low sodium), Vegetarian (yes Tofu is a choice), diabetic, mechanically softened and Low Fat/No Diary (mostly for people battling Cancer). 

All this is done by amazing management and organization. Teams of volunteers come in to work one of two shirts. The morning cuts and preps all the food and the afternoon works the assembly line to pump out over 1400 sealed, deliverable meals. I should mention I am much better scooping peas then Brussel sprouts and also that I still can't manage to keep my 1940s style ice cream vendor hat tightly on.

One of my favorite parts of the day is the conversations that take place while doing work that could otherwise seem tedious. On my first day I was stationed next to a lovely elderly lady with a quaint proper British accent who quickly commented on my 'better than average' skills with the knife.  I later confessed that I had an advantage - growing up in a household with a grandfather who was a butcher in Argentina and a mother with favorite hobby of gourmet cooking. I asked about her pleasant accent and found out she was born and raised right outside of Capetown. She was delighted to find that my project has me visiting South Africa. Beautiful and scenic were the words she used to describe Capetown and the surrounding farming country. My next question led to a discovery that gave me a better understanding of the organization. She was going on her 18th year volunteering at Open-Hand! As I went around the room asking the volunteers - 18, 16, 8, 5 - it became clear that this is more than a 4 story factory or a place to volunteer when you have the time, this was a family where volunteers become close friends and most importantly believe in both the organization and the cause. Man or woman, old or young, heterosexual or homosexual, everyone has the same thing in mind and the the numbers also depict this concept. A self proclaimed "rookie" can see and learn that the most important thing about cutting bacon, mushrooms, and peppers is preparing the meals with an open heart; after all, the slogan of Open Hand is "Meals with Love". 

Coming Soon - Working in the Grocery Store and Going on Home/Site Deliveries

Monday, November 12, 2007

National FACEAIDS Conference

The Perfect Plunge

There is something about being in a room full of students who have come from 25 different universities across the country to discuss the AIDS pandemic in Africa. Whether it is the passion and drive that is reflected in the discussions or the common belief that access to preventable and treatable diseases is a basic human right, the energy in the room depicts a piece of a movement that fosters a human quality much needed in the light of so much tragedy,  inequality, and oppression - this quality is simply hope. 

In small group discussions, the beauty of FACE AIDS comes alive. Big state schools (such as Michigan) and little Jesuit school (like Fairfield and Gonzaga), large established chapters (like Texas) and brand new budding chapters (like University of Wyoming).  It is a testament to the drive and beauty of activism and solidarity. Also, fundraising $850,000 for the Partners in Health Clinics in Rwanda demonstrates the merits and influence of such activism and unity.

I got the chance to ask Dr. Farmer (who by the end of the evening shook my hand and for better or worse jokingly called me a character) one of the questions I will be using when interviewing managers/directors of HIV organizations in the different regions. The question asks people to comment on what is needed most in this fight against HIV. Jim Kim, the former WHO director and co founder of PIH, stated at the first national FACEAIDS conference that political will is the key to large scale change. This was then echoed by Stephen Lewis, Kofi Annan’s special envoy on AIDS in Africa, at the 2nd National FACE AIDS Conference. The Dali Lama, in a documentary that featured Dr Farmer, placed the strongest emphasis on human compassion, and lastly, many say the biggest gains will be made through enhancing infrastructure of clinics.

Farmer thanked me for my question and answered the way I knew he would. To paraphrase, one is not more important than the other. The pandemic is a multifaceted problem that must be resolved through several avenues. For instance, he used the example of food. He discussed how much nutrition plays a role in resource poor areas and how many people debate and comment on whether his clinics should and could sustain paying for food (which he said accounted for 20% of the Rwandan clinic budget). In his matter of fact style the sentences that followed embodied his most basic belief and approach to successful healthcare. It is the whole picture one must understand,  band aids don’t work to cover a severed limb, and barriers remain unless broken down or maneuvered around. What good is putting someone on ARV’s if they are starving to death? Food is part of the equation of a healthy life.

The successes of PIH in Rwanda has created a stir among those in public health, and yet the secret is not hiding under a rock in Kigali. PIH has created a model that is well funded through the donors (heavily in part by the Clinton Foundation) and that has a government that is willing to seriously take on a crisis and do everything it can to make PIH a success. There is a reason people in southwest Rwanda are living a little better than 5 years ago. There is a reason PIH is revolutionizing health care in resource poor areas. There is a reason PIH has been asked to scale up there efforts to the national level, and there is a reason for hope in Rwanda.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Blog Info - The What it is and How it Works!

What is this?

This is the project's blogsite, but more importantly this will act as a journal and "inside scoop" to what I am doing, where I am, and what the culture and community is like.

What Can You Expect?

Expect to read about my experiences abroad and what life is like where I am staying. I will make simple notes and observations about the culture, scenery, people, and organizations in which I am volunteering. Expect interesting links of articles or data that are relevant to where I am. Expect pictures I take to provide a mental image and allow you to visualize the world around me.

How Can You Get Involved?

Come by periodically and visit. I will post every 3 days! This blogsite is meant to be interactive and keep people interested and, most importantly, involved. Click the pictures, utilize the links, and stay a part of the project. I invite you to post comments, suggestions, or even simple responses to my posts.

Let the Conversations Begin...

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Journey Begins . . .

1st Stop California - "Kick Starting the Project"

Weekend FACE AIDS Conference at Stanford University

I co-ran this national conference last year at Fairfield University and think it is a great way to begin the traveling part of the project. Dr. Paul Farmer, an inspirational and world reknowned doctor of social medicine, will be the keynote speaker and several other noteworthy and passionate specialists, public health officials, and media personnel will all be part of workshops and panel discussions regarding global HIV and cutting edge topics, such as microbicides and the "scaling up" of the very successful health programs run in Rwanda by Partners in Health. (To learn a little about Dr. Farmer and how Partners in Health is literally changing the world one community at a time read this brief article from Forbes Magazine )

Getting the West Coast Perspective

After attending this Conference, I will be volunteering in San Francisco at a non-profit organization that is dedicated to providing nutritional support to people who are critical ill or fighting HIV. The organization is called Open-hand, and to learn a little more about them their website is For the majority of the two weeks I will be in San Francisco I will be staying at University of San Francisco as a favor from the Jesuits. Again, I am lucky to have the support of St Peters Prep and Fairfield University, both have been extrordinary in aiding in whatever ways possible. It is exciting to think that 6 months of work and preparation will be realized in a few days.
The interview questions have been read over by infectious disease doctors, HIV volunteers, program directors, and several other keen minds. I have taken to heart suggestions and feel the questions balance both the humanistic perspective and the on-going struggle against HIV.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Three Talks Reach Over 350 Minds

Talks Spark Crowd and Recieve Positive Feedback

Talk Number 1 -
Sept 23 Lyndhurst

I had the honor of giving the Keynote Address at the annual Rosarian Society Brunch at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in Lyndhurst for roughly 250 people. The speech highlighted the positives of the Catholic Church in the fields of Education and HIV/AIDS Relief. I made sure to discuss members of the Church, such as Fr. Jim Keenan SJ of Boston College and Fr. Fernando Cardenal SJ of Nicaragua, who preach contraceptive use as a deterrent to the destruction of life caused by HIV/AIDS and to limit abortions.

The latter part of the speech discussed the HIV/AIDS pandemic from a perspective of basic human rights and social justice. Furthermore with the awarding of the "woman of the year award" the concept of Orthopraxis, as in placing importance in what one does over what one says, fit in perfectly with the active and service driven lifestyle of the award recipient.

I wish the Rosarian Society well and hope to return in a year's time to update the parish community on the project.

Talks Number 2 and 3

2 = St. Philomena's Youth Group Livingston, NJ
3 = St. Catherine's Youth Group Cedar Grove, NJ

These two talks, for roughly 50 high school teenagers each, centered on the merits of determination and passion in reaching for one's goals. Along side this message was the power each person has to build and make change around them. In addition to these topics, the effects and transmission methods of HIV/AIDS
were discussed at length. This proved interesting as more high schoolers were in the dark about HIV/AIDS than I expected.

It was certainly special to talk to teenagers whose position and seat I sat in five years prior. The questions asked following the talk and the discussions, which took place nearly half hour after the talks, proved priceless and allowed me to take some pride in what I am doing.

I thank Deacon Joe for the opportunity to talk to the Youth Groups, and I look forward to working with them on the Oct. 28th volleyball fundraiser in Livingston, NJ. I have the pleasure to announce that half of the proceeds of the fundraiser will be donated toward the project's costs.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Super Success

Dinner and Silent Auction Raises $16, 715!!!

There I was last Friday Night getting ready to address the 130 people that had come to the fundraising dinner, as i scanned the crowd I ran into face after face of people who have played both large and small roles throughout my life. Whether large or small the role is significant and at that moment what ever nervousness or apprehension I had drifted away with each smiling face. After all, a couple had driven an hour and half from Toms River to attend and one special guest had come all the way from Boston, MA. It was time to say what was on my mind, and the best I could put forward was that I understand how blessed I have been and am.

Tables of people from my grammar school, parish, high school, family, and even college. I had promised good food and great company, and both were provided without any input or help by myself. The exquisite Italian meats and food were donated by the Buzzio family and their restaurant Birichinos in the city ( The great company increased as each person entered the door; smiles, hugs, and salutations for friends and acquaintances who have not been able to catch up for some time. As the music played, and even as the fire alarm raged (on account of the oven smoke) I thought about life and its precious and uniquely special nature.

It is not enough to say thank you to the many people who made the event possible and even more so a success. There was Deacon Joe and my Parish (St Philomena's) who were ready for questions and had all the answers. There was the Specchio Foundation that allows me the honor of attempting this worthy endeavor under the name of their beloved late daughter. In addition, I am indebted to my mother Elvie, stepmom Amy, Aunt Celeste , and cousin Tess for the countless hours of work they put in before and during the event. With the help of all these people I was able to raise more than half of the projects budget in one night.

What lays ahead is the planning of the trips and the finalization of dates with the clinics. Make sure to visit now and again for pictures and updates.

I invite those who attended to post your comments on the night. Lastly, I thank you for the generosity and the support.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Save the Date!

Dinner and Silent Auction to Benefit Global HIV Project

Date: Friday September 21, 2007

Location: St. Philomena's Msgr Daly Center, Livingston NJ

Time: 6:00-9pm

Attire: Business Casual

Cost: Adult - $40 , Under 25 - $25 , Under 12 - $10

Come be a part of a special evening dedicated to raising funds for a worthwhile cause. Friday September 21st the Monsignor Daly Parish Center will host a night of good food and great company. Throughout the night a silent auction will run featuring items that all can enjoy. Will you try for dinner for two at Birichino, home to Gourmet Magazine’s “salami king of New York” Marc Buzzio, or is a luxury suite to a Newark Bears game more your style? Regardless if you bid or not, I invite you to participate in a project geared to raising consciousness to the reality of global HIV/AIDS.

The entrance donation is tax deductible if made in form of check to the Emily C. Specchio Foundation. This fundraiser will play a fundamental role in establishing how many cities will be incorporated in the project. Your generosity is much appreciated and I look forward to welcome everyone in person on Friday, September 21st.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Hello and Welcome


My name is Marco Ambrosio and I am a recent graduate from Fairfield University. I have spent the last four months planning a HIV project that will illustrate the differing realities of experiencing HIV/AIDS around the world. I will be volunteering at non-profit organizations and non-governmental organizations for 2 - 3 weeks at different cities and conducting interviews of program managers and people living with HIV who utilize the organization. These interviews will be guided by uniform questions that address access to treatment, funding, discrimination, and other valuable information. The more people understand about the AIDS pandemic, the more people will see the injustice that abounds and the urgency of the situation in the developing world. The interviews will be the heart of the book that will come out of the project.

This Blog will be used as a journal to document what I see, learn, and witness while traveling. It will be a way for friends, family, and others to track where I am and learn about the culture and the status of HIV/AIDS in the cities I visit. I invite all to post comments and be a part of the journey.

Best regards,


PS. I begin travel in early November so make sure you revisit!