UN award was 'energy-giving'
- Lifeline Co-founder, Jimmy Bhojedat By Esther Elijah
Guyana Chronicle
November 23, 2003

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'I remember many times I wanted to quit responding to HIV/AIDS. There is a depression that comes along with working in HIV/AIDS because you have to deal with all the different challenges that people have to face everyday. Sometimes it can become overwhelming. Many days you'd feel it is time to leave. But, when I look at those who would have benefited, some of the clients I've counselled who've returned to society and are looking good, that in itself is an achievement.' - Jimmy Bhojedat

"I WAS driving to work one morning having forgotten about the nominations that were (submitted) then I got a call from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) office here stating that I won the award. Really, I didn't believe that because I knew (the award) was a worldwide something where nominations were sent from all across the world," Jimmy Bhojedat remembered.

The Executive Director of Lifeline Counselling Service could hardly believe the news. It had seemed painless for him to accept that the chances of him ever making the mark were slim, as he thought the possibilities and probabilities were too vast for a 26-year-old Guyanese to win such a prestigious award.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) office in Guyana had nominated Bhojedat for an international award.

He would emerge the recipient of the UNDP Poverty Eradication Award of 2003 for the region of Guyana, the Caribbean and Latin America, for his efforts towards achieving the Millennium Goals, among which is the aim to combat HIV/AIDS worldwide. The award was the highest honour Bhojedat could possibly have received on October 29, 2003 at the United Nations office in New York. His seven years of waging a battle against the dreaded pandemic now ravishing lives in his homeland had borne great fruit.

"After I thought about it, I developed a real feeling of satisfaction within," Bhojedat told the Sunday Chronicle, in an exclusive interview on Wednesday.

He was awarded in 2001/2002 the National Volunteer Award as an outstanding youth in response to HIV/AIDS. He also obtained the Global Youth Service Day award in 2002.

"I remembered when I travelled to New York to receive the (UNDP) award - all the people there were excited to meet me. I was the youngest person receiving the award. The others receiving the same award were much older than I. These (awardees) came from Bulgaria, Indonesia, Botswana and Jordon," said Bhojedat.

"People were fascinated at what could have motivated a young man, at age 18 (when I started) to get involved in HIV/AIDS work.

Bhojedat said he was treated as "royalty". He stayed at Hotel Bedford in Manhattan from October 27 to 31, drove around New York in limousines, met the "high" officials within the UN offices, and had breakfast with UN Secretary General, Mr. Kofi Annan and his wife at their private residence in the Big Apple.

"The breakfast was a 'sharing experience' among the awardees and other high-profile people who were in attendance. Mr. Annan did not (personally) ask me anything, but his wife did. She wanted to know what is being done in (relation to) the large HIV/AIDS problem that (Guyana is facing). She wanted to know how the response was going for HIV/AIDS - more so (suggesting) possible support they may be able to push here for stronger response in Guyana," he recalled.

"What I realised was that unlike many people in the developed countries (the UN) people had a good sense of what is happening in the Third World countries. They were well aware of the situation in Guyana and the happening here."

At the awards presentation, Bhojedat told his audience of UN hierarchy and ambassadors from diverse countries gathered in an elegant setting in the UN building, that the honour was an "accomplishment" that restored to him "new energy" amid a period in which he was beginning to feel "drained" by the ever-increasing demands of his work that dealt with HIV/AIDS.

"The award came at a time when I was feeling drained and really needed some new energy to go on. It was an energy-giving award. I felt re-energised and ready to face another seven years of working in HIV/AIDS," Bhojedat said.

"Many times you feel that nobody is paying attention to what you're doing, but to be recognised at a forum such as the United Nations is quite a recognition."

Mrs. Annan, and Mr. Mark M. Brown, head of UNDP office in New York, presented Bhojedat with his award. He had to rehearse a day earlier with other awardees how he should accept the honour, in addition to being fully briefed by a UN representative responsible for arranging all meeting with members of the press.

During the week-long activities, the UN launched a photo-exhibition book that highlighted the positives of Africa.

"I had interviews with the UN Radio, another out of NY and several meetings with heads of the UNDP regional programmes, who were all looking at the work I've been doing (here) and they gave me encouragement and (explained) how they can help.

"I also met with the African American Association (AAA)..."

While no new donors for Lifeline Counselling Services surfaced in NY, there was a commitment on the part of several UN officials to further examine the work of Lifeline and possibly offer whatever support is available.

Lifeline could potentially foster relations with AAA to garner funds, have it provide technical training, or agree to this group mobilising funding agencies and/or linking Lifeline with funding agencies in the U.S.A, according to Bhojedat.

Representatives of the media in the United States were searching for answers to explain what is propelling the spread of HIV/AIDS in Guyana.

"I was able to point to them some of the factors - poverty, unemployment, low self-esteem, loss of morals, culture and belief practices - contributing factors that are driving the epidemic at the rate it's going," Bhojedat explained.

He mentioned the strong non-governmental and governmental response in Guyana in addressing the spread of the virus.

Bhojedat was barely 18 years old in 1996 when he joined Dereck Springer, an HIV/AIDS and STD counsellor now Chairman of Lifeline; Jennifer Rosen Swaig, a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer now serving in the Middle East, and Phillip Vanderhyden, an HIV-positive patient, who succumbed in 1998, soon after they decided to co-found Lifeline Counselling Services.

Lifeline is a non-profit organisation established in response to a dire need for free and confidential HIV voluntary counselling and testing outside the formal health care system.

Since opening its doors to the public, Lifeline has successfully expanded beyond counselling and education to a far broader range of social services which the organisation feels equips it better to respond to clients' needs.

Additional services to the public now include care and support, facilitation of testing, condom social marketing, training of trainers, information, education and communication for behavioural change and healthy lifestyles, and peer group development to support behaviour change education, and a hotline for those still wanting anonymity.

These services are free to clients and are utilised widely by the Guyana population, particularly persons who are socio-economically disadvantaged.

Clients are counselled on risk assessment, risk reduction, sexuality, relationships and suicide. Together with the care and support programmes and the hotline service, Lifeline helps clients and their families to preserve their family structure by being more supportive of HIV infected members, so that they are able to live positively, stay in school or remain in productive employment, and actively take responsibility for their well-being and self-esteem.

Among the partners of Lifeline are the Ministry of Health in Guyana, the National AIDS Programme, community-based organisations, other non-governmental organisations, public and private laboratories, schools, university student groups, employers in both the private and public sectors, sports and youth groups, international organisations, including USAID, the U.S. Peace Corps, CIDA, PAHO, UNICEF and the UN Theme Group on HIV and AIDS.

Partners typically commission Lifeline to provide training, for example, for health care workers, STI educators and counsellors or peer educators. Such arrangements have the added advantage of facilitating Lifeline's mobilisation of stakeholders to proactively assume their share of the responsibility for preventing the further spread of HIV and in mitigating the impact of AIDS.

In 2002, a study conducted by a reputable accounting firm in Guyana estimated the value of Lifeline services delivered to the public at roughly US$300,000 between the period 1996 and 2001, outside the formal health care system.

Finances for Lifeline's work are mobilised from international donor agencies for outreach programmes such as the Guyana Youth HIV/AIDS/STI projects, supported by USAID, to strengthen the capacities of seven of Lifeline's partner groups to more effectively carry out peer education in their respective communities.

In the same way and at various times, Lifeline has also received resources from PAHO, UNICEF, the UN Theme Group on HIV and AIDS, and several corporate enterprises for specific project activities in Guyana. Fundraisers like cake sales, take-away lunches, the Red Ribbon and Small Change appeals, and donations from individuals and businesses also help to keep Lifeline services free of cost to the public. In-kind donations of food, nutritional supplements, clothing and condoms for distribution are critical to the care and support services. Volunteer counsellors, trainers and educators and others provide invaluable contributions to Lifeline.

The HIV/AIDS scenario in Guyana
HIV and AIDS is perhaps the most enormous and serious challenge for the Caribbean - and Guyana in particular.

More than two in every 100 people suffer from the disease and this figure is reportedly on the rise. In Guyana, AIDS is the third leading cause of death. Infection is highest in the 19 to 35 age group in the general population, according to Lifeline reports.

Figures suggest that one out of every 14 persons living in Guyana has HIV or AIDS. The World Health Organisation (WHO) stated that three to five per cent of the population is battling the effects of the disease.

It is estimated that only one-fifth of the persons in Guyana, who are infected may be aware of their status and even then, they may not seek counselling and support for various reasons. This section of persons and the other four-fifths who are unaware of their status constitute a significant population of potential contributors to the spread of the disease.

Guyana has a National Strategic Plan for HIV/AIDS for the period 2003 to 2007 - the plans and programmes to be implemented by the Ministry of Health are to the tune of $3.8B. Anti-retroviral (ARV) therapy has been available in Georgetown in the public sector since April 2002.

The first AIDS case was diagnosed in Guyana in 1987. The disease has been progressively on the increase, with significant hikes between 1997 and 1998 and a further sharp rise in 2001 over 2000. Figures that point to the sharp increases, according to the Ministry of Health NSP plan, may in part be the result of improved surveillance or a reflection of the infections contracted seven-10 years ago, which have not had the benefit of treatment. In Guyana, the HIV/AIDS epidemic has spread to all sectors of the population and the end of 2001 had reported some 2,185 cases.

According to the Ministry of Health plan, the rate of increase of AIDS cases is faster-growing among females than males, with an acceleration of this evident since the start of 1993. Figures in 2002 showed that females represented 38 per cent of all AIDS cases in Guyana outstripping the men in the 15-24 age group. In general in Guyana, the largest number of AIDS cases occurs among persons 20-49 years of age. The disease reaches its peak in the 30-34 age group.

On prevalence rates, the plan stated that 1 per cent of infected persons are found among blood donors, (down from 3.2 per cent in 1997), 7.1 per cent among pregnant women in 1995 (up from 3.7 per cent in 1993); 13.2 per cent male (1992) and 6.5 per cent female (1993) among STD clinic patients; and 45 per cent among female commercial sex workers (1997 - up from 25 per cent in 1989).

According to data from 2000, about 80 per cent of HIV/AIDS cases were living in Region Four, at a rate of 144.8 per 10,000 of the population.

Six per cent of AIDS cases originated from Region Six (25.9 per 10,000) and Region 10 (86.6 per 10,000). Region Three had a rate of 33.8 per 10,000 while the other regions had AIDS rates ranging from 6.2 to 28.6.

In the absence of a cure, the main weaponry against HIV/AIDS is more effective and widespread awareness and prevention education, counselling and care and support services.

Lifeline's philosophy and operational approach underscores its belief that the situation in Guyana dictates the urgency of need for rapid change in people's behaviour towards more healthy lifestyles. Otherwise, the results will be slow in coming in respect of decreases in the incidence of infection, productivity losses in all spheres of socio-economic activity due to illness, and the deaths of family income earners who in turn leave behind countless orphans, according to Bhojedat.

Jimmy had a vision
JIMMY was born July 3, 1977 to Charan Das and Cheryl Bhojedat. He is the eldest of three sisters and one brother. His days were spent in the countryside, firstly in the village of Paradise, Berbice, before moving to Farm, Mahaicony.

A student of Mahaicony Primary School, Jimmy gained his secondary education at Bygeval Multilateral, where he spent two years before transferring to Mahaicony Secondary School.

At Bygeval, he developed his public speaking and debating skills. Jimmy topped his high school at Mahaicony, where he emerged in 1993 as the Best Graduating Student with eight Caribbean Examination Council (CXC) passes.

When he graduated, Jimmy spent one year teaching Biology to students at Mahaicony Secondary.

Just around the same time Jimmy joined Lifeline as a teenager, he was in the throes of pursuing a Medical Technology Associate Degree at the University of Guyana, intent on majoring in Microbiology. During his summer break from classes, he worked as an intern, a Medical Technologist, at the Georgetown Public Hospital, where he confronted on a daily basis the tragedy of young lives lost to HIV and AIDS. He resolved to personally do something that would make a difference in preventing the further spread of HIV and mitigate the impact of AIDS.

Jimmy's internship at the hospital introduced him to the other co-founders of Lifeline. Among them a vision was birthed and the doors of Lifeline Counselling Services were opened on October 22, 1996 at 354 Cummings Street, North Cummingsburg, Georgetown.

"I always had a caring side growing up in the church - a passion to help people. I always used to look at people who were suffering and wished I could help. It also helped that I was taught to love in the church," said Jimmy.

"When I joined Lifeline I never thought I'd spend seven years in HIV/AIDS response. I thought I would have just spent one year before moving on. Getting involved in HIV/AIDS is something that sucks you in, because every time you think of giving up, you realise more people are affected. How do you stand by and see another human being perish?"

Lifeline began with counselling and educating persons to help reduce the psychological impact of HIV and AIDS. Initially, Jimmy volunteered at Lifeline while he pursued his studies. When he graduated as a Medical Technologist in 1998, Jimmy gained employment at the Infectious Disease Laboratory at the Georgetown Hospital. In 2000, he joined Lifeline as a full-time staff as Projects Coordinator. He was promoted to Vice-Chairman in 2001 and Executive Director in 2002.

A five-member Board of Directors manages lifeline.

Jimmy's contribution to Lifeline Counselling Services and the way it has matured over the years is also chiefly linked to his social mobilisation skills and his leadership qualities.

He had benefited from overseas training in Canada and the Caribbean, in capacity building of organisations, proposal writing, counselling, volunteer recruitment, training of trainers and leadership for results.

Jimmy also benefited from an attachment at Black Cap, a Canadian HIV/AIDS organisation, where he gained first-hand experience that is of practical relevance to Lifeline Counselling Services.

In recent times, Jimmy has taken on the leadership of the Lifeline's resource mobilisation campaign. Sponsors expect him to be highly visible at fund-raising events as the spokesperson for Lifeline and for HIV and AIDS.

He not only practises his skills daily but is also teaching them to others in Lifeline and partnering groups.

Audited records show that beneficiaries of Lifeline's services grew from 70 persons in 1996 to 11,574 in 1999, to 17,188 in 2000 and 35,000 in 2002. Lifeline has vibrant outreach stations in all ten administrative regions of Guyana, because it has created a network of counsellors. Lifeline has trained more than 150 counsellors and 1,000 educators in addition to establishing a core of more than 190 youth peer educators.

A role model for young people, Jimmy can match their rap and hip-hop - he's as good a disc jockey as the best of them. He plays steel-pan music and is an avid Christian who fellowships at Emmanuel Faith First Assembly of God Church in Mahaicony.

Jimmy serves as a member of the church board, and he is the sectional youth ministries representative for churches in the communities from Anns Grove to Abary.

The UN awardee also sits on the National Youth Ministries Executive in Georgetown.

He is now contemplating opportunities to further deepen and widen his contribution in the HIV/AIDS arena. One of his aspirations is to contribute to research that will accelerate appropriate treatment regimes, if not a cure, for persons living with HIV and AIDS.

Jimmy wants to pursue a Masters Degree in Public Health, Microbiology or Virology, to prepare him for the research work he believes will help him better serve Guyana and elsewhere.

"Personally, ... my biggest support comes from Almighty God. Without His strength, guidance and support all of what I would have achieved, and the depth at which I would have moved, would have been impossible," said Jimmy.

"I've had a lot of support from my mother and father, sisters and brother, who constantly remind me that I'm doing something good and that I'm making an impact for people to benefit. I also acknowledge the staff and volunteers of Lifeline for their support, and my (Christian) friends, namely Pastors Medroy Brandt, Harris, Sills, etc. - all men who encourage me to keep up the good work. When I'm feeling down, I can give them a call and hear them say, 'Cheer up.' I've been able to use the motivation within my friends to motivate myself."

Jimmy said his motivation also comes from the "personal satisfaction" of knowing that he helped someone or a whole community.

"This is especially true when a client walks into (my) office feeling very depressed and then leaves at the end of the (counselling) session feeling empowered, revived and feeling they can press on even after testing positive with HIV."

"I remember many times I wanted to quit responding to HIV/AIDS. There is a depression that comes along with working in HIV/AIDS because you have to deal with all the different challenges that people have to face everyday. Sometimes it can become overwhelming. Many days you'd feel it is time to leave. But, when I look at those who would have benefited, some of the clients I've counselled who've returned to society and are looking good, that in itself is an achievement."

"The greatest motivator that (keeps me in HIV/AIDS work) is when I see young people such as myself affected (by the disease). That person can be a brother, a sister, and a friend. I'm motivated to (continue working) because I'm seeing the future wiped out.

I want to see people going to church. I want to build God's kingdom... I really would like to know I saved these people, not only by giving them salvation through God, but in protecting them from infections such as HIV, so that they may have full health and strength to be used by God."

Jimmy has individually counselled more than 300 persons stricken with HIV/AIDS.

"Being non-judgmental as a counsellor is critical. If somebody walks into the office and says he or she has had sex with five partners you don't (express disgust) because you will immediately (turn away) the individual and they will not open themselves to you.

"I'd ask open-ended questions ... Many times when I ask about feelings, this leads into many areas. There may be tons of problems responsible for depression, for example, but you need to prioritise and you may need to work with one person for several sessions, and, hereby, develop a client-counsellor relationship.

Many times people have within themselves what is needed to empower themselves."

After counselling sessions Jimmy constantly reminds himself that he needs to distance himself from getting personally involved in problems facing clients.

"If you become sucked into the problem you will not effectively be able to help the client," said Jimmy, adding, "In the past, I was sucked into problems and I remember becoming very depressed because I wanted to intervene and find the solution. But, I had to remind myself that I need to help the clients find the solution for themselves, by giving them guidance and helping them reach that point."

"One of the things to remember is that counsellors need to be counselled. You seek an experienced counsellor(s) or some good counsellor to which you can go off-load. If you don't do this, you become like a barrel with a whole lot of stuff within yourself."

Jimmy's office is open Monday-Friday from 09:00 hrs to 17:00 hrs. Several of Lifeline's training programmes are conducted on weekends countrywide or at the level of youth groups, wherever these may be located.

At least 25 Lifeline training programmes were hosted, in 2002, primarily in Region Four.

Lifeline provides technical support to most of the other NGOs working in HIV/AIDS in Guyana.

Jimmy's advice to youths thinking of getting involved in projects within their country is to "make sure you have a passion for what you're going to do."

"Oftentimes, people respond simply because someone asked (him or her) to respond. I don't believe response such as this works. You must develop a passion in the compassion. Every young person needs to get involved in the response against HIV/AIDS. This (area) can never be overworked. We have not yet reached the stage where HIV/AIDS figures are on the decrease. Therefore, we need every person to get involved. Youths are the ones who are getting infected with (HIV/AIDS) and if you don't get up and start acting, you might find that you've to deal with it someday," he said.

"Work with your friends, colleagues and family members helping them to change their behaviour and attitude."

Abstain or Use a Condom?
IN THE classic debate of whether to abstain from sex or use a condom for sex, Lifeline has chosen to support neither, but rather to embrace both.

"We use a multifaceted approach. We recognise there exists a target audience that will abstain from sex, and another who may not abstain, some may chose to be faithful. There are different target audiences," said Jimmy Bhojedat.

"While I am a Christian and believe that you need to wait until marriage to have sex, I also have to think realistically, in the sense that there are young people in society who are having sex, and who do not yet know God. I need to say to them, 'Protect yourself' to avoid them contracting HIV.

"What sense is there in telling youths not to protect themselves, but instead wait until they get infected with HIV and then tell them how to take care of themselves. It would be a waste of time."

Jimmy said churchgoers are beginning to understand this concept.

"In the beginning, the church had been bashing people for talking about condoms (and its use) but I've seen pastors who recognise and say, 'While I will not preach from my pulpit that persons should use a condom, I will leave room for that to happen.'"

"While we are waiting on people to reach that point where they will accept Jesus and change their lives, we can't leave them to become infected (with HIV/AIDS)," reasoned Jimmy.

"I strongly believe that religious bodies need to do more (in the fight against HIV/AIDS). It is these bodies that deal with morals, family values, self-esteem, etc. The other side of the coin shows that many people who test positive turn to religious bodies for support.

"If Christians are not prepared to deal with HIV/AIDS infected persons they will turn them away. If this happens, we lose an opportunity to show love and save a soul. The salvation of one HIV/AIDS infected person can become a powerful testimony for many others."

Lifeline may be reached online at www.lifeline.org.gy and E-mails can be sent to: lifeline@networksgy.com