July / August 2011
by Oriol R. Gutierrez Jr.
Carlton Rounds, the founder of Volunteer Positive, empowers people with HIV/AIDS to serve abroad.
Carlton rounds is the executive director and founder of Volunteer Positive, a nonprofit organization that enables Americans living with and affected by HIV/AIDS to volunteer to help AIDS service organizations in other countries. His day job is assistant director of the Center for International Programs at the State University of New York. Rounds shares how his professional experience working across the globe and his personal experience living with HIV since 2005 led to his impassioned vision to put positive people to work helping others living with the virus.
Watch his interview:
Tell us about Volunteer Positive.
Volunteer Positive is the first international service organization that supports
HIV-positive people who wish to volunteer for short-term international service. It’s the ultimate matchmaking situation. We connect HIV-infected and-affected people with their counterparts—people who are living with similar challenges in different places around the world. This is our inaugural year. The first Volunteer Positive
location is Chiang Mai, Thailand. And we’ll send the first group there in January 2012. South Africa and Mérida, Mexico, are possible future locations.
Why did you choose Chiang Mai?
Thailand has been successful with its HIV prevention and outreach programs in a way that other countries haven’t. They had one of the first HIV vaccine trials.
There are many nongovernmental organizations in Chiang Mai, and there are some really remarkable ones that work with people affected by HIV. It’s also very tolerant of LGBT people.
Plus, it’s absolutely stunningly beautiful. It has fantastic medical support. It has world-class universities. It’s not a hard place to spend a little bit of time.
What are some of the groups you’ll assist?
There’s a fantastic organization called Grandma Cares, which supports grandmothers who care for AIDS orphans. Another one is Empower, which works with sex workers to provide HIV testing.
There’s one other group that I particularly feel bonded to called Violet Home [for men who have sex with men]. It’s an organization run by HIV-positive people for HIV-positive people. It fights stigma in the context of Thai culture.
What are your hopes for participants?
When they come back, I want everyone to be more engaged. I want them to say, “I feel more empowered to make change and be more involved directing the
future of HIV care and rights as a person who’s HIV positive.”
I want them to feel like they want to go back. I want them to say to me, “Carlton, where are we going next?”
I see a real lack of leadership of positive people; we are not setting the healthcare agenda and the [civil] rights agenda in the United States. This is my way of stirring it up. My goal is for Volunteer Positive participants to have a succession of experiences that will make them uniquely qualified to be global leaders.
How do volunteers subsidize their costs?
Volunteer Positive is structured to be volunteer funded. There are limits and benefits to that.
As a new organization, we don’t have a lot of money. But it also means we don’t have a lot of overhead. The cost of participating is significantly less because there’s not a huge infrastructure to support.
People raise money to pay for their own travel expenses. As the organization grows, my plan is to be able to subsidize [costs] so that we’re matching [funds raised by volunteers].
What support do you provide?
I work with volunteers to answer their questions, set expectations and understand them as people.
Volunteers in [foreign] countries need to understand the cultural context in which they’ll be working. In Chiang Mai, there will be lectures on Buddhist philosophy, Thai history and Thai language. My goal is to teach cultural competency-building skills within the group of volunteers.
I set up the housing, set up the medical support, set up the educational infrastructure and do all the logistics.
How was Volunteer Positive launched?
I was sitting in the office of my HIV doctor and picked up a copy of POZ magazine. On the cover was a picture of Jeremiah Johnson [who became HIV positive while in the Peace Corps and lobbied the organization to change its policy on HIV-positive volunteers, which it eventually did].
Since I worked [at an international service organization] I met with our CEO. I put the magazine down on his desk and said, “This is really bothering me.” He read it and said, “This is just wrong. Let’s get Jeremiah on the phone.”
We arranged to send him [to any of our programs] in the world. One of the suggestions was to send him to Peru, where I had done service. As Jeremiah was preparing to go into the country, I realized that how people prepare themselves [for work or travel abroad] if they’re positive is different than if they don’t have HIV.
Jeremiah [who is currently on my board of advisers] was concerned about going to Peru. I realized while trying to prepare him that I was uniquely qualified to help people in this way.
One day I was asked to be part of a panel discussion on underrepresented
individuals in international service. Someone asked, “Why are you up there [on the panel]?” It never really occurred to me that I had been so used to not talking about being positive. So I disclosed.
Then somebody said, “What are you going to do about it?” I said, “I’m going to start the first organization for people like me to do international service as openly positive people.” Then I went up to my hotel room and broke into a huge sweat and thought, “What have I done?”
The next day my inbox was full of emails; they were really remarkable. I didn’t get any bad ones. It was right around the time when President Obama was about to get rid of the HIV travel ban. I thought, “This is so synchronistic.”
How did HIV intersect your personal and professional lives?
I remember after teaching one night [in 2005], I slumped over my desk. I thought, “God, I don’t feel right.” I got tested [for HIV], and it came out positive. It’s an emotional process that you can’t intellectualize.
Soon after I found out [I was HIV positive], I had to get on a plane to Cape Town [for work]. I was running a human rights program—where we were doing presentations on human rights and HIV in Southern Africa—and helping with a support group, where I was the only American, within a month of my diagnosis.
It was surreal. I went through it, and I came home. My whole sense of who I was in the world was redefined. I would rather go through change without HIV, but I’m a better person than I was. I have a more inclusive worldview. I’m probably emotionally more accessible than ever.
Volunteer Positive is about anti-stigma. It’s also about claiming your space in the world. My way of trying to regain my power is to fight for my own agency as a global citizen. It’s about presenting an image of people who are HIV positive as strong. One day, I’d like Volunteer Positive not to exist, because I’d like HIV-positive people’s contributions to be ubiquitous and visible.
Go to volunteerpositive.org for more details.
Search: Carlton Rounds, the founder of Volunteer Positive, empowers people with HIV/AIDS to serve abroad.
Scroll down to comment on this story.
comments 1 - 12 (of 12 total)
David Edward Shamer, Baltimore, 2012-07-20 23:28:38
I would like to request your assistance in making a fresh start. I have devoted the last four years to the Ryan White community in Baltimore, Maryland. I see that you are looking for two volunteers to travel to Thailand latter this year and next year.
My life has changed so much since the 1980s when being diagnosed with HIV. I would benefit greatly from this experience to Thailand and hope that you agree that the expedience will give me the motivation needed to fully enjoy life.
Mwaura, Nairobi, Kenya, 2012-04-11 08:16:40
Thanks Carlton was invited by Gary Wanderer to volunteer but afford it have been positive for five years i ussualy advocate though have never disclosed due to high rate of stigma in Kenya thank so much for your inspiration God bless you and continue with the good work and i cant get permission from my work place to attend i started a Self Help Group called beautiful mothers but failed due to luck of funds would you wish to support and learn it please am looking for some one who can do it please
hansika, bangalore, 2012-04-07 08:02:19
im devastated to know im hiv positive for a week now.i would love to serve in support groups as a volunteer but am ignorant of these.i want to strengthen my mind by being a part of the help groups. i want to live my life beautifully by being a beautiful person.i know iv very short time.god im torn.i want to connect with stong people and move on.
Robert Cole, Highland, New York, 2012-03-19 10:58:54
Positive for over 12 years, and work part time in health care. I want to make more of a difference with ones that I can relate to and help, as we share the same chronic illness.
Ella, Ondo state, 2012-02-17 10:50:18
I am a Nigerian,i tested positive to HIV.I am being neglected and rejected.I find it hard to get employed because of the stigma attached to the disease.I want to be part of your volunteer team,want other people to learn from me too.How can i apply and be part of this team
David Darden, willimantic,ct 06226, 2011-12-05 12:31:12
I would Love to volunteer give something back I know I have A lot to give as well tolearn GOD HAS MOVE in Life so i can help some one though there hard time
Albert o.y, Warri, 2011-11-14 05:14:32
ImAlbert from Warri and was testes HIV positive.I heard of your volunteer Program and had to apply but unfortunately,i was told applications are no longer accepted.I really need to join so that i can effect/affect the lives of people living with this stigma.Is there any other options of applying?
Mario R., San Juan de los Morros - Guarico -Venezuela, 2011-08-02 05:35:23
Saludos a todos, llevo meses buscando una organizacion donde pueda compartir mi experiencias, donde pueda formarme y capacitarme para ayudar a otros, le doy gracias a Dios y a ustedes por hacer posible que este sueño se volviera realidad, solo espero que se llegue a concretar, a estas alturas de mi vida, no estoy apegado a las cosas materiales, sino a ser alguien util y poder decirle a quien necesite oirlo que si podemos salir adelante y que hay mucha vida por delante.
chichiri, philippines, 2011-07-07 06:43:38
volunteer as positive is really great oppurtunity. I myself as a positive very interested to volunteer. Im from Philippines and i porbably love to help to show everybody that being positive is manageable. I work in hospital but I still managed it. thanks POZ for the information you gave it to me and friends that also positive. LOVE LOVE!
Jon, Long Beach, 2011-07-02 12:22:47
This is a great opportunity for HIV poz men and women. I volunteered at an orphanage in Buenos Aires five years ago and worked with kids that were affected and infected with HIV. It was a life changing experience, one I will never forget. There is a lot of healing power in reaching out and helping others who are in the same situation as you are. Makes you feel stronger! Keep up this good work!
Don, , 2011-06-30 23:13:11
It is all well and good to help people in other countries, but their are people right here at home in the US who need help Case in point AIDS Resources of Rural Texas serves 19 counties and is shutting down due to bureaucratic BULL. The clients of this clinic are losing case management, health care and prescription services Where is the help for those of us living with HIV in rural Texas? And why can't I post a link to the news story that shows the truth of this?
Khalid Talab Yassin Omer, khartoum, 2011-06-30 20:26:04
comments 1 - 12 (of 12 total)
I would like share this program with volunteer from another country I living with HIV/AIDS 9 years now and work at Sudanese People Living with HIV/AIDS Care Association from 2006 to this Day
And my all Hope Help People living with HIV/AIDS