By Erin Rook, PQ Monthly
At the end of July, HIV/AIDS activists travelled from across the globe to attend the 2012 International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C. One of those attendees was 34-year-old Martha’s Pantry volunteer Robby Bricker’Voyles. PQ asked him about his experiences at the conference, and here’s what he had to say.
PQ Monthly: How would you describe the International AIDS Conference?
Robby Bricker’Voyles: Overwhelming and inspiring. Day one of the conference had 64 events alone and that was just the conference. There were…events all around the city of Washington DC as well. It was VERY hard to pick what to attend. I have the event program guide as a souvenir – it looks like a telephone book if that tells you anything.
PQ: What brought you to the conference? Did you go for work or out of personal interest?
Bricker’Voyles: I have been volunteering at Esther’s Pantry, a food bank for HIV/AIDS positive folks, for a few years. I went to the conference to learn the latest information on HIV/AIDS and to bring it back (mostly printed media) to share with the pantry clients and the other volunteer staff. I would be happy to share with the readers of PQ Monthly if asked.
PQ: Have you ever attended a conference like that before?
Bricker’Voyles: No. First time at something like this.
PQ: What were your expectations like? Were they met?
Bricker’Voyles: Not having been to anything like this before I went in with an open mind that I would try to take it all in. That proved a lot harder than I would have thought. My expectations were met and then some. If anything I would have to say I was under prepared to deal with just how big and how emotional and how special the conference was. It was a once in a lifetime event for sure.
PQ: What was the most interesting thing you learned at the conference? The most encouraging? The most disturbing?
Bricker’Voyles: The most interesting thing I learned is that at least one person, and usually many more people, came from 195 countries – from the small island of Tonga to every country in Africa and beyond. I knew AIDS is a global issue but it really hits home when you see 22,000 people who come to learn like I did and take back the information to even the smallest country and to their communities. The most encouraging thing learned is that at the 30-year mark of AIDS people still care and are driven to achieve an AIDS-free generation. You had scientists talking with people who are living with HIV. The networking and the bridging of people from activists, advocates, care givers, scientists, community leaders, people of faith and the most important people of all, the people living with HIV/AIDS, was very encouraging. The most disturbing thing was hearing a story from a teenager (14-year-old) about how he asks a girl out on a date and tells her about his HIV status and she rejects him and says she cant go to the movies with him. I found that just heartbreaking. Being 14 is VERY tough, add to it a chronic illness with HUGE stigma still attached to it and WOW I just cant even imagine.
PQ: What was your favorite thing about the conference?
Bricker’Voyles: Meeting people. I met so many interesting people, from kids who came all the way from Swaziland to a Tongan trans woman. I hope that I laid the foundation to form friendships that will last a lifetime. The people I met, we laughed, we cried, we hugged, we ate meals together. My favorite experience came from my favorite speaker, a woman named Florence from Nigeria. She stood up with her daughter and said, “I am a woman, I am a wife, I am a devoted mother. I have HIV. This is my daughter. She was born negative. I ask all of you to do everything you can to keep as many people negative like I do her.” I mean, what can you say to that?
PQ: Did you see or hear anything that surprised you?
Bricker’Voyles: I met these kids from Haiti. These kids were HIV-positive and orphans. They live on less than $2 a day. They were at the conference as youth delegates. They all had on these really cool bracelets. I asked them where they got them – turns out the kids make them. They find the string and old computer wire and make them into these bracelets. They then sell them to make money to buy their HIV medicines. It just proves to me that you can turn something old into something new and even in the poorest of places people do find a way to survive. Just don’t ask how many of those bracelets I bought.
PQ: What will you do with the information and connections you gained at the conference?
Bricker’Voyles: Other than the program guide, which I kept as a souvenir, I took and gave all the information I brought home to my boss at Esther’s Pantry. I am sure he is looking it over to find out new information and ways of helping our clients. As far as connections, lets just say I added a lot of new friends on Facebook.
PQ: Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Bricker’Voyles: I believe we can have an AIDS-free generation. We have come such a long way from those early years. But it’s going to take time, money, energy, love, and will power to stick to that end goal. Please join me in helping bring that goal that together we can end AIDS.