"At the center of the universe is a loving heart that continues to beat and that wants the best for every person. Anything we can do to help foster the intellect and spirit and emotional growth of our fellow human beings, that is our job. Those of us who have this particular vision must continue against all odds. Life is for service." ~Mr. Fred Rogers

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Becoming Informed

This week, I had the privilege to attend a 5-day PEPFAR Conference in Kyiv with the sociologist from my school, one of my 10th Formers, and 20 other Volunteers and their Ukrainian partners. PEPFAR (President Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) started in 2003 by President Bush to fight the global HIV/AIDS pandemic. While some might be quick to criticize PEPFAR or the education of HIV/AIDS, I now know first hand what an incredible impact it is having in Ukraine to educate many, stop discrimination, continue to save lives and fight the spread of this deadly virus

What was nice about this conference was being able to dig so much deeper into the topic of HIV/AIDS. I've done trainings before but this allowed us time to focus on history, biology, ways of transmission, most at risk populations, stigma & discrimination, as well as project planning and goal setting with our community partners. We met HIV+ individuals and they shared their stories and gave us so much knowledge. We were able to ask them open and frank questions regarding their status and their lives, making the topic hit so much closer to home for all of us.  

There are so many misconceptions and myths all over the world regarding HIV/AIDS. Personally, the two most important things I think that should be taught are the ways of transmission and reducing stigma and discrimination. I know that Ukrainians aren't closed minded because I work side by side with compassionate and caring people every day, but if you lack knowledge about something, than certainly anything you hear can be true, especially if the topic is as serious and sometimes frightening, like the topic of HIV/AIDS. 

Knowledge is power people, as is evident from this poster I made in Ukrainian Langauge lesson at the conference.

Become Informed, It's Better than the Alternative

Facts that I think are worth sharing. All data from 2011

  • HIV/AIDS epidemic in Ukraine is one of the fastest growing in the world, with 1.3% of the population currently infected with HIV making it the highest population in Europe
  • About half of those HIV+ individuals know of their status 
  • The overwhelmingly common way of transmission, in Ukraine, is through the sharing of needles or syringes (An estimated 278-378,000 intravenous drug users in UA)
  • An estimated 360,000 HIV+ persons in Ukraine 
  • Only 22% of those living with HIV/AIDS are receiving antiretroviral treatment

It's good to be back in Kolky and I'm ready to be back in the classroom. I hope my weeklong absence will be a good conversation starter for some and I'm able to share my experience and the knowledge gained. The three of us from Kolky came up with so many simple, but effective plans to help educate others, because on a fundamental level, knowledge is the most sustainable things I feel I can leave behind. 

On the note of leaving things behind, I want to say THANKS YOU so much to those that are supporting me with my Book Drive. I have had a lot of positive feedback from friends and family all over. Books and funds are being gathered by congregations, work offices, non-profit organizations and connections are being made with so many people from all over the States. If you are interested in supporting me and my community with this project, I'd be happy to answer any questions. Contact me on Skype (ben.hogue), Facebook, or email!

Ben, Nadika, and Natalia
The Kolky PEPFAR Trainers!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Final Chapters

For some time now, I've been thinking about the ways that I wanted to leave Kolky. Of course I've given so much of myself to this place and have been given so much in return, that it's close to impossible to just leave. The only way I could truly thank my community and school would be to stay and work here forever, but since that is not a possibility, I've been thinking of some other ideas to start to wraping-up my time here. 

For Lent this year, I'm going to read. I read often and especially with the mass exodus of many of my friends, I have some more free time to do that. But for lent, I'd like to be intentional and thoughtful about my reading habits. I'd like my reading to take more of a focus during these 40 days, and sacrifice other digital-activities for reading time (e.g. reading on the bus rather than listening to music, reading during my off lessons, rather than using the internet, falling asleep to a book, rather than a movie, etc.)

With these thoughts of leaving (not so soon, but still...) and intentional reading recently swirling around my head, an idea came to me: my communities in the States could connect with my community here in Kolky and the people that I love could help me express my gratitude to the people here though a simple, yet very valuable Book Drive. 

Why a Book Drive? Well, authentic texts are very hard to come by here in Ukraine, and when they are found, many are too expensive for students to purchase. The limited money for our department goes towards necessities for teaching, leaving little to no money for ‘extras’ such as quality books for our students to enjoy. It was instilled to me at an early age that reading is one of the most important parts of learning, and books have helped me form my own creative and imaginative identity. In a fast paced, 'plugged-in' world, I know that a student’s enthusiasm and desire to learn English can come from many places, but only books can pair together enrichment and imaginative excitement.

Now I know what you're thinking, books are heavy and it's expensive to send heavy things in the mail. Yes, you're 100% correct. A box from USPS, weighing no more than 20lbs (which is lot of books) is going to be between $50-$75...but I'm not asking for 100 boxes of books. I'm hoping that maybe groups, organizations  congregations, etc can work together to help support me in this task. Maybe you work with 15 people who could each pitch in $5 and a gently used children's book. Or possibly your group is looking for an easy service project and has some easy chapter-books lying around. Rather than giving up sweets and coffee for Lent this year, give up a few novels and spend 40 days intentionally reading with me and supporting this project.   

If this is something you think you would like to do, or have any questions, please let me know. I'd be happy to email with you (benjaminaric@gmail.com) or Skype (ben.hogue) and give you any more details that you'd need. The "Customs Form" these days is a little bit of a painful process, but my parents have done it many times and have helped others through the process, leading me to believe that it is in fact doable. Also, I will be in Kolky until early July, so you have time! Ideally, I'd like to present the books to my school before May 24th, the last day of school. Getting them out early April, just after Easter, would be perfect. 

If you like, please read with me during Lent and meditate on the thought of possibly collecting some gently used books to help out this amazing community that has so warmly embraced me for two years.  If all you can send my way is prayers, I'm extremely grateful for that as well. I have had the most amazing, continuous support from my friends and family, and it's a blessing to include all of you into these final chapters of my experience!