NEW YORK: Optimism, passion, and a joy of life is what one breathes when entering the offices of AID FOR AIDS, a non-profit organization founded in 1996 by the Venezuelan Jesús Aguais. The main objectives are to collect drugs in the United States and redistribute them among people with HIV who live in countries where these drugs are a luxury for the few, and to give life–and quality of life–to adults and children in over 40 developing nations. Today it is still the most important and oldest NGO of its kind in the United States.
A psychologist and counsellor at Saint Vincent’s Hospital, Jesús Aguais began to save the medicines that some of his patients stopped using for various reasons. He sensed that they could be useful for someone else. One day, when he went to see a humble Venezuelan woman seeking help for her son and daughter-in-law, both with HIV, he understood how right that intuition was. Medicines which no longer served for some people could be useful for others who lived in places where they were much more difficult to obtain. The seed of AID FOR AIDS was sown and has grown; today it delivers medicines to patients around the world, offers educational and prevention programs, and helps immigrants with HIV in New York.
Jesús knows what it means to die of HIV or live with it as a sin and a shame. Many are the people who have passed through his office, many friends whose lives were shattered by the outcome of the HIV test.
“In the 90s,” he says, “I lost many friends because of AIDS. I was 20 and was very struck by these deaths. I came to New York. I think it was the best thing that could have happened to me because everything I do I owe to this wonderful city. I was a member of Act Up, a group fighting to improve the lives of those with AIDS. Sharing these struggles was very important to me. It changed me, changed my way of seeing the world. I think that within the context of human rights, the right to health is one of the most important. To guarantee everyone the right to his or her own sexuality, and to good health, had become my greatest aspiration. Today things are different and my focus has changed. I see the problem of AIDS as part of a much wider social problem. AIDS today is no longer mortal like it was 15 years ago. The ones who die are those without access to medicines. They are not victims of the disease but of a lack of public policy.”
Each year AID FOR AIDS delivers medicines worth close to seven million dollars. They can arrive to any city in the United States and are sent by doctors, social workers, and patients, all involved in a network of solidarity that has been growing year after year.
The shelves of medicines that are waiting to be sent are arranged with the same methodologies as pharmacies use. Some numbers offer anonymity to both the donor and the receiver. The database AID FOR AIDS ensures strict control of both the drugs and the patients. Each case is studied and followed by specialists working in collaboration with physicians from the countries in which the HIV patient resides.
Between the shelves we see a child’s drawing with two photos of a smiling young Asian woman with a baby. Jesús perceives the question in our eyes and says with a hint of pride and enthusiasm:
“The nicest thing about this job is the connections that continue with the people, even with those we know only by photo, email or Skype. She is a young Chinese girl that we started to help with drugs when she was 11. Now she is 21 and healthy and just had a baby that is HIV negative.”
AID FOR AIDS has created a platform called «Latino Observatory» to monitor the HIV situation in Latin America and the Caribbean, especially in those countries that receive money from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS and Tuberculosis.
“We sit on the board of the Global Fund as providers, as ‘watchdogs’, explains Jesús Aguais. “Our role is to check that the money the Global Fund invested for those purposes is used in the right way.”
His proximity to the world’s neediest places has helped Jesús to assess the work of the NGOs and have a clear vision of the mechanisms that should be utilized to give serious and concrete answers to the different problems. He believes that the concept of philanthropy in Latin America needs to be developed.
“It is necessary to restore the confidence in NGOs,” he tells us. “In Latin America we are not used to the concept of philanthropy but rather that of charity. This entails a great dispersion of energy because employers prefer to create their own foundations and often act without knowing the real needs of communities. On the other side we have to help the social entrepreneurs to create infrastructures that can give confidence to financiers. The breach between those who have, and they are many, and the social organizations is too broad. Shortening it is the whole challenge.”
The need in the world for HIV medicines is enormous and Jesús Aguais knows that his organization is able to cover only a part of these requirements. “Knowing that I have to do much more allows me to keep my feet on the ground and inspires me to fight more and more.”
He reflects a moment, and looks at his colleagues, all absorbed in their work. He smiles.
“I feel very lucky,” he says satisfied. “I do what I am passionate about and I’m surrounded by people who love this work as much as I do.”