It takes a monumental amount of courage and determination to do what Damone Thomas is doing. The 26-year-old is on a mission to provide education, comfort and advocacy for people living with HIV/AIDS in Jamaica. Fueled by this courageous spirit, in 2012 Thomas founded Healing with Hope, a charitable organization that aims to
“be ‘THE VOICE’ for People Living with HIV/AIDS (PLHIV) among Faith-Based Organizations (FBOs) and Communities, while stimulating ‘HEALING’ to the mind, heart, soul, spirit & body and at the same time spreading the message of ‘HOPE’ to those who are living with and significantly affected by HIV/AIDS.”
This is HwH’s vision, and the specific activities this vision encompasses include reaching out to churches and spiritual leaders to provide education and support for outreach; raise awareness and hope; reduce stigma and discrimination and increase harmony amongst all interested parties.
Thomas’ journey with HwH started in the summer of 2012, when he was laid off from his job as a customer service representative at a credit union. “I reflected on life overall, and this vision was laid out in my heart, and I started to write it,” he says. “The name came about because I believe people living with HIV/AIDS, with God, healing is possible, but I don’t want to push my belief in God.” Prayer and spiritual connection are an important factor in healing, Thomas believes. “I want people to know they are not alone.”
However, he faces a challenge in Jamaica, where people tend to associate HIV/AIDS with homosexuality, which in many circles is taboo. “It takes a lot out of me to get people to see that HIV is not a sin.”
According to Ministry of Health statistics from 2011, there are approximately 32,000 people with HIV in Jamaica, with up to 50 per cent of them unaware of their status. In 2011, 1,250 people with advanced HIV (661 males and 589 females) were reported compared to 1,503 in 2010. (Check out a comprehensive country progress report here.)
The Ministry of Health in 2004 struck a $23.318 million agreement with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria to provide medication for those afflicted with the illness. However, this agreement is close to an end and may not be resumed, Jamaica’s status as close to achieving middle-income status being the reason. Talks to resolve this, however, are underway right now.
In the meantime, Thomas continues to work with churches, attend conferences when he can find sponsorship and in a bid to raise money, produces and sells the bookmarks pictures. He charges $100 each (about $1US), which is re-invested in the organization. Thomas is also focussing heavily on employing social media to get the word out. In addition, he recently designed a new logo with sponsorship from a California-based organization. And he has travelled across the U.S. for conferences, learning and spreading the word.
In Jamaica, Thomas wants to target vulnerable communities in which those afflicted by the disease are too afraid to be tested because they fear being discovered, or who, because of their work schedule, are not able to see a doctor during the day. “If they get on treatment, it does work. It is the only way you can suppress the virus.”
HwH is clearly a labour of love for Thomas, as he has not been able to secure funding. He does, however, receive support from other NGOs such as the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition and UNAIDS. “I am a determined person,” he says. In order to overcome the stigma many people he encounters have about HIV/AIDS, Thomas cites the example of Jesus’ treatment of the leper in the New Testament of the Bible. “Jesus never asked him what sin he had done. He spoke with him and reached out to him and helped this man. I believe that’s what I want the church to do.” And this is his core message: “You can’t just force somebody to change. You have to show love and care and support, and at the end of the day, once you show love, people will say they can make it.”