When Jeremy Isajiw was diagnosed as being HIV-positive almost three years ago, he at first thought of it as a death sentence. But when the UA international-studies major, now 31, discovered Positively Beautiful, he started to embrace life. The local organization pampers people living with HIV/AIDS, and he says volunteering with the organization saved his life. On May 16, Isajiw left for Tanzania to volunteer with an AIDS-education program with Support for International Change. For more info on Support for International Change, visit www.sichange.org; for more on Positively Beautiful, go to positivelybeautiful.org.
How did you find out about volunteering in Africa?
I'm an international-studies major at the UA, focusing on HIV and AIDS in the developing world. One of my advisers mentioned this program that teaches people in Africa about HIV and AIDS. My interest is in South America and Peru, but I figured I have to go to Africa; that's where (AIDS) started, and that's where it's so bad. HIV is affecting so many people on a different level there than it is here. The stigma there is huge. People are still afraid to touch your hand.
How did you apply for the program?
There was an interview process. Then once I was accepted, I did 2 1/2 months of field training at the UA. I taught a class at Tucson High School about HIV as part of the training, because that's what I'll be doing in Tanzania—what I'll be doing for eight weeks in a really rural region in northern Tanzania—teaching people about HIV and AIDS, doing awareness and prevention campaigns as well as testing, (and) also doing more to address the stigma of living with HIV and AIDS. I found out I am the first person with HIV accepted into this program.
What do you expect from the trip?
It is going to be a learning process to see how I can go over there and share my status. There may be times when it may not be right to use my status because of the stigma, but (there are times it may be right) to show people in Africa that someone so far away, living with the same disease, is healthy and happy. ... In the village I am going to be working at, I'll be with a group of people with HIV who have come together to speak out, which is really rare.
Do you have any worries about the trip?
I'm concerned about how or what is going to be the right way to use my status in the classroom to better help the community. I think I need to be cautious with that, because of the misconceptions of HIV. It could be dangerous. I think I'm just going to have to really feel out the situation. ... When I do lecture and do teach, when I share my own personal experiences, I know it will hit home with them so much more to hear from an actual person with HIV, as opposed to someone with just facts and figures.
How did you get over your depression after being diagnosed with HIV?
I spent a year living fearful until I met Dr. Heather Moroso, who founded Positively Beautiful. It was then that I learned to help others and help myself. It was something that gave me an outlet to help myself. HIV has a lot of side effects. ... The side effects come from the medication, and they can change your appearance. We're using fashion and using makeup to help people feel good about living with HIV. To be honest with you, Positively Beautiful saved my life.
What else helped you move past your diagnosis?
Sharing my personal story and to come out as someone who is living strongly, healthily and happily, and show that you can live and follow your dreams and go all the way to Africa. Last year, I hiked the Inca Trail (in Peru at) 14,000 feet. That was my test: If I can do this, I can go to Africa. Once I started to look at my life differently, things fell into place. I got married after my diagnosis to a non-HIV person, and we've been married now for two years. When you are first diagnosed, you don't think you can find love. I did. Many HIV-positive people feel that way. Everyone told me when I was first diagnosed that it's not a death sentence. For me, it was. Life before HIV was now gone—but it was also rebirth of somebody new.