Friday, June 23, 2006

Young ambassadors stress a healthy lifestyle

NST: They come from different backgrounds and live on opposite sides of the globe, but both share a passion for working to prevent HIV/AIDS.
The Malaysian landed in HIV/AIDS work the hard way — via remand. The Bahamian was gradually drawn in by a friend whose family had been split up into children’s homes when their mother was killed by the virus.
Now, both use their youth and their experience to reach their peers as Young Ambassadors of Positive Living (YAPL) bearing the motto, "Youth working with Youth".
Hafizi Harun, 28, was chosen as ambassador of the "Youth Against Drugs" programme by Minister of Youth and Sports, Datuk Azalina Othman Said, and as the Commonwealth Youth Programme’s YAPL for Asia in March.
Last month, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi presented him with a special award as National Youth Ambassador.
Keith Kemp, 23, is a YAPL in the Bahamas, where he is a voluntary counselor and testing trainer for the Caribbean HIV/AIDS Regional Training.
"I’m a risk-taker," admits Hafizi, who started smoking when he was 11. By 13, he was sniffing glue and smoking ganja. By 16, he was injecting heroin.
"I shared needles a lot," he recalls. "My friends warned me I could get HIV/AIDS, but once I was hooked or felt withdrawal, I didn’t have time to think about HIV/AIDS and death. I just wanted a hit."
In 1997 he was caught and remanded at the Sungai Buloh prison for drug possession.
Since it was his first offence, the judge sentenced him to a fine or six months’ jail. His parents paid the fine and took him straight to Persatuan PENGASIH Malaysia, an NGO run by former drug users.
It was a blood test that turned his life around: "I thought I had a 90 per cent chance of being infected, and I deserved it," he says.
"I was tired of living, lonely, empty and had no goals. When I found out I didn’t have the virus, I thought everything happens for a reason.
"It was a gift from God. He chose me for a purpose, so I had to do something positive."
Now the training manager with PENGASIH, Hafizi notes that in Malaysia the main mode of transmission for HIV/AIDS is intravenous drug usage. The second is sex.
"It’s all about risky lifestyles that could lead youth to be infected with HIV," he stresses.
"Prevention needs to focus on avoiding risks like drugs, promiscuous and unprotected sex, gangsterism and crime."
He also works with people already infected to encourage a positive lifestyle.
Meanwhile in Nassau, Kemp trains 150 young people in peer leadership, counseling and education on HIV/AIDS. Over the past year, they have spoken to more than 15,000 young people.
"We use young people to reach their peers, not just telling them not to have sex but why they shouldn’t. We show them what’s important, how to prioritise, how sex could damage their future with HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted infections and teenage pregnancy."
Kemp and his team also visit schools once a year, classroom by classroom, for a week of "Family Life" classes.
Some of the team are HIV positive, although Kemp himself isn’t.
When they visit schools and youth organisations, they take someone who is HIV positive and let him or her sit in the audience.
"Then we call them up to tell their story," he explains. "It changes the audience’s perspective, because they never would have guessed. This combination of education and experience is something new."

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