From School Dropout to Activist and Advocate - Jason's Story
Jason found out he was HIV positive nearly two years ago. Then, he was a carefree sixteen year old, living with his mother and two younger sisters and trying to learn a trade to prepare himself for adulthood.
Now his experience with HIV has transformed him from a school dropout to an articulate speaker and committed advocate who speaks regularly about living with HIV to school, church, organizational and community groups in Jamaica.
Jason’s first sexual encounter was in early adolescence and his story of early sexual initiation, unprotected sex and HIV infection illustrates the risks facing many young Jamaicans today. The 2002 Reproductive Health Survey, Jamaica, revealed that the age of sexual initiation for males 15-24 years old is 14.5 years. More than a half of boys 15 to 19 years old did not use a condom the first time they had sex.
“When I went to the doctor the second time, she asked me questions about my sex life, my partners, about using the condom and I just answered. I got my blood drawn because she said she was going to do a blood test. It was only when I was going home that I started thinking over my answers and realizing I never used condoms with that girl or at that particular time. But still, HIV never came to my mind,” explains Jason, who says he first had sex when he was about twelve.
He returned to the health centre a month later and was given the news. He was sixteen years old.
“At that time a different doctor came in and took out my docket from the files. She just said ‘Jason, you are HIV positive.’ I sat down and I laughed. I could not believe it until I took the paper from her and saw it written there in red ink! To tell you the truth after that all I could think is ‘You are going to die, You are going to die!’ ”
The effects of this diagnosis were devastating – his mother and father were both overcome by the news. He moved from his mother’s home to living near his father, as initially his mother was unable to cope with the fact that her son was HIV positive. Jason admits he had suicidal thoughts and bouts of depression.
Help for him came from Jamaica AIDS Support (JAS), a non-governmental organisation which his stepmother contacted in an attempt to help him cope with HIV/AIDS. He was interested in JAS’ candle making project and began spending his days at the organization, volunteering to work at candle making. Eventually his dedication paid off and he began receiving some money for his efforts. He was also able to get access to medication through the Centre for HIV/AIDS Research and Education Services (CHARES).
It was through JAS also that Jason became an advocate and speaker to educate others about HIV. He now makes presentations to civic groups, church groups and to young people like himself who are in schools or in his community. He feels that he would have benefited from interaction with an HIV positive person like himself when he was in school.
“It would have helped me to identify with HIV. When I was in school I did get information - I remember we even got a test about HIV in school and I got the highest marks – but I never felt you could look healthy and have HIV. All the time when they teach, they always show the different STIs. So you are always looking for signs of sickness in someone who is HIV positive. They do teach us but it is not the ‘full 100.’”
Jason is not afraid to share his experiences with his peers and feels he has helped them, particularly in recognising how unprotected sex can put them at risk of HIV infection.
“I always take a box of condoms to my friends in the community, and everything I learn from JAS I tell them. I teach them proper condom use and I don’t hide anything from them. I am now trying to get them to do the test for HIV but it is not easy. They know I have had the experience so they listen.”