Lauren Magee takes a break between rehearsals for the annual Christmas party performance. (John Freund)

Learning to carry each other

Notes from the Field includes reports from young people volunteering in ministries of Catholic sisters. A partnership with Catholic Volunteer Network, the project began in the summer of 2015. This is our fifth round of bloggers: Katie Delaney is a Good Shepherd Volunteer with the Fundación Madre Josefa (Mother Joseph Foundation) in Santiago, Chile, and Lauren Magee is a Good Shepherd Volunteer at Hands of Hope, an income generating project that provides dignified employment for villagers living with HIV/AIDS in Nong Khai, Thailand.

______

In 1965, the Good Shepherd Sisters were called to Thailand's capital to create a home for women and girls there, providing them with education and skill-training programs. These women typically had moved to Bangkok from their rural villages, seeking work to support their families. In 1980, the sisters expanded to serve these rural villages in the Nong Khai province in an effort to prevent individuals from moving to big cities and putting themselves at risk for exploitation.

In the 1980s, Thailand began to see its first diagnosed cases of HIV/AIDS, and rates of infection quickly rose. Deaths from AIDS-related illnesses increased, especially in rural communities, because of a lack of access to antiretroviral medications. Additionally, people with HIV faced discrimination in their families and village communities and were unable to maintain employment. Therefore, the first projects the Good Shepherd Sisters initiated were centered around developing village communities and providing residential care for those living with HIV/AIDS.

The sisters created Hands of Hope, the project I primarily serve with, in 2005 to offer a fair wage, dignified work and a supportive community to those living with or affected by HIV/AIDS. With the help of the Village Outreach Program, medication became more accessible, and the knowledge of perinatal HIV transmission led to early medical interventions during pregnancy.

The Isaan region is mostly farmland and the views of rice fields are plentiful. (Lauren Magee)

In 2006, the project welcomed its first HIV-negative baby born to HIV-positive parents. This served as a glimmer of hope for the next generation. Now, more than 10 years later, our Village Outreach Program serves a dynamic group of youth ranging from newborns to young adults with varying HIV statuses.

Biannually, all of the youth come together to attend different workshops on self-development, interpersonal relationships, sex education, and vocational/educational training. They also have the opportunity to participate in Christmas Camp, which a weekend intensive, learning dances to perform at the party held for the whole Village Outreach network.

Because I am a former competitive dancer, this camp will forever be my favorite weekend in Nong Khai. The Thai language does not always come easily to me, and having the opportunity to use dance, one of my favorite mediums of communication, gave me a new sense of freedom.

I wanted to challenge myself in this year of service to connect with a population I don't usually seek out, specifically older adults, but I must admit that I often miss working with youth. I always feel the most comfortable around children, because I think internally, I may still be 12 years old. Their friendship is granted almost instantaneously, and they give me the confidence to be completely myself. During these workshops, I sensed I wasn't the only one who felt this way.

Regardless of HIV status, these youth had grown up together and held each other through difficult transitions. While Thai society may still hold a stigma against those with HIV/AIDS, this space is free from judgment.

Village Outreach youth participating in a team work activity. They had to hold hands in a chain and travel from one side of the room to another. The challenge was that they could only step on the few sheets of yellow paper they were provided. (Lauren Magee)

During a workshop in November, attendees were prompted to maneuver their way across a room while remaining connected to one another. The added challenge was that they could only step on the few sheets of yellow paper they were provided.

The chain started across the floor, apprehensive and unsure. They soon ran out of paper with only 10 of the almost 30 youth even beginning to enter the room. Soon, they realized they could rip the sheets of paper, and although they would have less room to stand on, there was no way they could all make it across another way.

I watched as one by one, they placed these slivers of paper before them, making sure never to release the hands of those next to them. Even the small children could only fit one foot on the yellow islands, so balancing was tricky. They needed one another to remain stable and to reach their destination.

Halfway through, they began carrying some of the smaller children in their arms or on their backs, sharing even the tiniest of spaces, feet planted on one another. Once the leader of the chain reached the other side of the room, he turned back to help each person pass him and leap into the safe zone. Not long after, everyone made it past the finish line and rejoiced with a cheesy group photo. They were all determined to reach the finish, but it meant nothing if they didn't all reach it together.

I spend so much time in this unconditionally loving community that it always surprises me to hear discrimination is so present around us: students denied education because of their HIV status, villagers refusing to purchase goods made by HIV-positive individuals, and the general gawking and feeling of isolation that the patients face even during their routine hospital visits.

Two Hands of Hope producers make a traditional Isaan dish called ส้มตำ, or spicy papaya salad. (Lauren Magee)

The societal stigma stems from a lack of knowledge in how HIV/AIDS is spread, but there is a spiritual component, as well. Buddhists believe your karma accumulates throughout your past lives and can affect you positively or negatively in your current existence. Therefore, if you fall upon hardship — for example, developing HIV — or gain success, it is seen as a reflection of your karma. Surrounding yourself with individuals perceived to have good karma would be in your best interest, and isolating those with bad karma would be considered a form of protection.

However, it's in moments of pain you can feel the most love. More and more, I am searching for challenges because I know how beautiful it is to overcome them. Standing with others through their life journey is where we see the vulnerability of the human condition. How else can we know the sacred bond of human connection and withstand the tests of our own karma? Why can't we accept each other like children do?

I think back to our youth during the workshop, so willing to be close to one another and help those on wobbly legs. For these youth, their HIV status, whether positive or negative, is and will always be a part of their identity: those living with HIV, accepting their reality and succumbing to a strict medication regiment, and those living without HIV, feeling the pressure to reach greatness, as if they were granted a limitless destiny.

I know these youth are growing up in a nontraditional context and that some have an unwavering desire to be "normal" by their society's standards. However, "normalcy" doesn't allow for the relationships these young people have created and for the open-minded acceptance they offer to others. There is so much beauty in this oddity that we all wish was the standard.

[Lauren Magee is a Good Shepherd Volunteer at Hands of Hope, an income-generating project that provides dignified employment for villagers living with HIV/AIDS in Nong Khai, Thailand.]

Need some inspiration? Visual Life offers an image and a quote to contemplate five days a week. See what you may have missed >>