When Nadia was 10 years old, she was hospitalized for an entire month. She had no idea she was HIV positive until months later – and she didn’t realize the weight HIV carried until she returned to primary school.
“My teachers would always say you can’t do this, you can’t do that,” Nadia said. “They acted like I was so fragile. Like I could faint at any moment.”
For months, Nadia felt isolated. The kids at school didn’t understand why the teachers treated her the way that they did, and Nadia couldn’t understand it either. When she took her medication, she felt fine – but for some reason, her teachers thought she was anything but.
Tired of all the special treatment, Nadia stopped taking her medication, hoping that everyone would treat her like a normal person again.
Once Nadia’s mother realized what her daughter was doing, she brought Nadia to Alive Medical Services (AMS) for counselling. Day after day, Nadia sat with the counsellors, and they spoke to her about good adherence and living positively. Soon after, Nadia began engaging with the Victor’s Club, AMS’ youth program for adolescents living with HIV.
“When I got to secondary level, I started to let it go,” Nadia said. “I thought to myself: I have HIV. That can’t be changed. And I can live with that.”
In time, Nadia began singing, dancing, and making friends at Victor’s Club. This past summer, AMS staff trained Nadia to become a youth peer educator, giving her the skills to counsel other youth living with HIV, and refer them to the clinic for treatment.
Now 18, Nadia hopes to attend university next year. Eventually, she hopes to become a counsellor for HIV-positive children herself.
“I want HIV-positive children to know that living a positive life is not that hard,” Nadia said. “You can live beyond other people’s expectations. You can achieve what others can achieve, and more. It’s important not to be afraid.”
Ever since school let out, Nadia has spent her days volunteering at AMS. She helps measure the weight, height, and health status of children at triage, working alongside the nurses and helping whenever she can.
“I want to work with children because they are the future of tomorrow,” Nadia said. “They should know that HIV can’t stop them.”
On Friday, November 17, over 100 peer educators attended a capacity building session at Alive Medical Services (AMS).
Every quarter, peer educators attend these half-day events, which aim to track progress, dissect challenges, and set goals for the future. Once a client becomes a peer educator, they are charged with referring and visiting eight potential or current clients per month, increasing their communities’ access to free HIV testing and care.
“My husband died because of AIDS, and I never knew,” said Eva, a peer educator. “I always felt like if I had known – if he had told me – we could have avoided his death. I became a peer educator because of that, and to show others that being HIV positive doesn’t mean life can’t go on.”
From 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., AMS staff engaged the peer educators in several different sessions. To evaluate the impact of their home visits and referrals, monitoring and evaluation officials went over the groups’ recorded progress. In addition, peer educators voiced the challenges they were facing in their work, sparking conversation about recent successes and setbacks.
One of the challenges highlighted by peer educators was the fact that oftentimes, members of their communities will ask the peer educators to accompany them to the clinic on their first visit. Such accompaniment makes it easier for new clients to locate AMS and feel more comfortable in a new setting – but sometimes, this is not financially feasible for the peer educators.
After discussing the issue and the frequency of such requests, the peer educators came to two solutions: the first, writing out clear directions and detailed instructions of where to go and what to expect when locating the clinic; and the second, to reach out to AMS for transport reimbursement if accompaniment is essential to getting a community member to the clinic.
“Peer educators are instrumental to the comprehensive health care we provide at AMS,” said Geoffrey Nsabimana, a clinical officer at AMS. “These trainings increase peer educators’ skills, and because of that, help them bring in more clients.”
Many of those who attended the training have been peer educators since the program’s launch in 2014. Their experiences – along with their continued attendance at trainings like this one – provided insight for new peer educators, helping the latter navigate their roles and learn how to deal with unexpected challenges.
“AMS is always growing,” said Olivia, a community health worker at AMS. “The capacity building trainings help peer educators manage increased client loads. They also give peer educators a chance to encourage and support each other.”
Later, AMS doctors led a session on the differentiated service delivery model (DSDM). Though this model has been in place at AMS for several years, the clinic is currently looking for ways to strengthen its implementation. By engaging peer educators in this process, AMS will be able to provide DSDM not only at a clinic level, but on a community level too.
“I’ve been a client at AMS since 2007, and I’ve always been treated well,” said Samuel, another peer educator. “I became a peer educator to spread the news about AMS. People in my community don’t realize they provide free services, but I know that if we keep talking, we can reduce the number of people who are getting HIV.”
The next peer educator capacity building training will take place next quarter. In the meantime, the group will go about their monthly duties, expanding AMS’ reach and continuing to educate their communities on HIV/AIDS.
“Peer educators help us to help others,” Olivia said. “Reaching clients is not something we can do alone.”