By Anna Jackson, Montaña de Luz Board Member and former Long Term Volunteer
This is the second installment of a series of blog posts entitled “Building a Future.” We will highlight the role of Montaña de Luz in building a better future for families affected by HIV in Honduras.
In 1998, when the idea of Montaña de Luz was created, Honduras was reeling from a devastating hurricane that changed the landscape of the country. It’s considered one of the most deadly hurricanes in the area and left nearly 1.5 million people homeless and caused roughly $4 billion in damage. In a country that was already experiencing high levels of poverty and economic instability, the hurricane confirmed a similar future for Honduras.
Honduras remains one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere and continues to rebuild from Hurricane Mitch. Families were relocated, jobs were lost, entire industries were forced to restructure, access to healthcare was paused, and a massive number of children were orphaned. The town of Nueva Esperanza, where MdL is located, was created as a resettlement town for women who had lost their homes in the hurricane. Now 20 years later, generations of families live there and MdL, and its mission, have grown and changed tremendously.
Around the same time period, Honduras had not yet received access to ARVs, the anti-retroviral medication used to treat HIV/AIDS. With a HIV diagnosis being largely synonymous with a death sentence, MdL was created as a hospice for children living with the disease. In its earliest years, MdL existed to care for children in the final stages of their lives and many families viewed homes like MdL as their best option. As a result, roughly 90% of our children have living family members throughout the country.
The ARV medication is saving lives everyday, and through the Honduran government, it’s free. In fact, HIV care is changing so much that last year (2017), the CDC confirmed that any individual living with an undetectable level of the virus is unable to transmit the virus to a partner. In other words, an individual that adheres to their medication can have an undetectable level of the virus in their blood. This is remarkable for a number of reasons but quite simply, it assures that our children are living longer. And now, in 2018, we have about 20 teenagers that are healthy and learning to find their way in the world. We owe it to them to help prepare them as best as we can.
Last year, UNICEF and DINAF (Honduran children services) released new guidelines discouraging institutionalized care for children and promoting family and societal re-integration. Over the years, MdL has worked hard to create the best environment possible for every child. With nurses, psychologists, social workers, educational specialists, and caregivers as part of the full-time staff, it has been our goal that every child feels loved, safe, cared for, and healthy. But despite all of this, evidence continues to suggest that children in institutionalized care do not develop at the same rate as children in foster care or other community or family-centered alternatives. Cognitive, social, behavioral and emotional development is all heavily affected in institutional care. It’s believed that ‘normal’ child development requires consistent one-on-one care with a parent or foster parent. These new guidelines confirm something all children deserve: a loving family.
As we move forward in accordance with the new guidelines, we will treat each child less individually, and focus more on them as a child or young adult with context, which is their family and their community. We will work to recognize and validate the role that family plays in child welfare, while working hard to strengthen the family as a whole.
In the coming years, we will work with our children’s families and also add a foster care program for special cases where family reintegration may not be possible. Each child and their families will work with our psychologist, nurses, social workers, and educational specialist to assure that the transition is both probable and safe for everyone involved. Staff members will continue home visits for years to come. Where families are struggling, we will work to provide social services and education to ultimately create more family preservation. Families will we be expected to participate in our Charla Luz, an interactive talk on HIV prevention, transmission, and how to live with the virus. It will be necessary that everyone involved has a strong understanding of HIV/AIDS.
Shifting towards a family-centered environment is best for MdL and our kids for many reasons. With HIV transmission down nearly 30%, we receive less and less referrals each year; those living with the virus are able to live normal, healthy lives. The majority of our children are between 15-20 years old and are naturally starting to plan their lives after MdL. We owe it to them to work hard and give them the best possible future. We can study each child’s case and help to strengthen their network to ensure they truly are ready when they leave our program.
For the few children that don’t have a strong family or network to fall back on, we will utilize our new foster-care program, so that these special cases are still able to be in a family-like environment with a trusted and knowledgeable adult. Our goal has always been that no child or young adult is left behind and this continues as we move forward.
In the years to come, as we shift to family-based care, it is our hope that we can reach many more families in the surrounding area and ultimately expand our reach and impact. By opening our doors and reaching out to those in neighboring communities and eventually perhaps even nationwide, MdL has the potential to be one of the leading organizations in Central America focused on HIV care and family preservation. Our kids have begun this process; in recent months, several of our kids and nurses have traveled to neighboring Villa de San Francisco to give a version of Charla Luz to those newly affected by HIV. To families in this situation, our children become the advocates and our staff will be following up to provide psychological support. We now have the potential to serve hundreds of families and children in the future.
During my time as a long-term volunteer, one of the most common questions I was asked from group members or visiting teams was “what happens next?” What happens when all of the “kids” at MdL are in their late teens or early 20’s? This is happening right now and we luckily have the resources to help these young adults transition into adulthood with their families behind them. The support of a family is priceless and it is exactly what each child deserves.
I have seen first hand the excitement our kids have during family weekends or in preparation to spend time away with family members. Their pride and admiration is evident. These relationships are crucial to their identity and future and as we move forward, we should strengthen the family’s ability to care for and protect their own child. I think the world of these kids; I believe they are part of a remarkably unique group of young people that have every ability to cause major change in their country. The support of an organization like MdL combined with a loving family could be the very ticket to success.