In a downtown San José church, a choir sang songs Dec. 1 to commemorate World AIDS Day. There weren’t many of them, and they were dressed in a ragtag ensemble of mismatched black tops and pants. None of the choristers could read a note of music, and some were decidedly pitch-challenged, but what made this little choir special is that all its members were people living with AIDS.
The choir is just one of many activities offered the residents and nonresident members of Hogar de la Esperanza (Home of Hope), the only hospice providing full-time shelter for HIV+/AIDS sufferers in Costa Rica. The home was founded in 1994 by Orlando Navarro, director of Asociación Humanitas, a nonprofit organization helping socially excluded and often poverty-stricken victims of a disease most prefer to ignore.
Some of the fortunate few living at the home come from backgrounds most can barely imagine – drug (mostly crack) users, homo-, hetero- or bi-sexuals and transvestites involved in the sex trade around San José’s seamier districts – but not all. An illchosen sexual partner can hit the socially accepted, too, but once diagnosed as HIV+, many are kicked out of their homes and families and forced onto the streets. The spiral into sickness, poverty and self-denigration is almost inevitable.
While Costa Rica has an enviable track record protecting the rights of AIDS victims, with legislation in place since 1998 to provide the antiretroviral (ARV) therapy free to all people with AIDS, some fall through the cracks. A recent World Health Organization/Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/ AIDS report cites more than 1,800 AIDS sufferers receiving government ARV treatment throughout the country, representing 80% of HIV+ sufferers who need it.
Hogar de la Esperanza provides a home, insures ARV treatment and works on the rehabilitation of its 30 male residents. A further 30 women live with their (mostly HIV+) children outside the home for the simple reason that the shelter’s infrastructure cannot accommodate them. Nonetheless, they receive medication and therapy and, each Wednesday, they come to the home for activities ranging from making marketable handicrafts to hairdressing, beauty, dressmaking and literacy classes.
Most importantly, both groups learn life skills to build self-esteem and confidence, as well as practical training to help them reintegrate into society.
“Instead of seeing AIDS as a terminal disease, we approach it as a chronic disease, giving sufferers new opportunities to value life,” Navarro said.
To help its members through the often devastating process of learning to accept and live with AIDS, the home offers spiritual and psychological support through pastoral care and professional psychological counseling.
Besides the shelter, Asociación Humanitas offers highly marginalized street dwellers warm food, a listening ear and informal, basic education through its twice-weekly La Carpa (The Tent) project. A marquee is pitched near downtown San José’s La Dolorosa Church, and regulars are encouraged to take part in other outreach programs. One such project is in Puriscal, a country town southwest of San José, on a farm recently donated by a local benefactor. The farm will be used to give agricultural training in stock raising or growing food plants, skills that can lead to more independence and the possibility of reinserting participants into society and the job market.
Relying entirely on donations, Hogar de la Esperanza receives no government funding; yet the home exudes efficiency and activity, and nobody goes short. It is impossible to visit the shelter and not be moved by its residents.
Some members of Costa Rica’s Englishspeaking Little Theatre Group were recently shown around by Juliana Sánchez, a psychology undergraduate who works part-time at the shelter. Thanks to an initial contact set up by a member, the Little Theatre Group decided to offer its support. The visitors were able to meet several residents, look in on the women’s handicraft group and watch as University of Costa Rica music student and volunteer choir director Randall Fallas coaxed music from his singers.
Zealously protecting the dignity and identities of its residents, the home does not allow names to be published, and photos are allowed only with permission. Ranging in age from 20 to 70, the men come from El Salvador, Nicaragua, even Guyana and Peru, as well as Costa Rica – a reflection, perhaps, of the country’s more liberal legislation with respect to AIDS sufferers.
Challenging stereotypical images of gaunt and wasted figures, several residents looked healthy and spry. One five-year resident, a graduate artist from Peru, lost his job once his disease was discovered, as did another, a professional mechanic from San José, abandoned by his family, who now acts as the home’s administrative right-hand man.
Both looked hale and happy, in sharp contrast to a 24-year old resident who lost his sight to AIDS 15 months ago, and several others whose eyes reflected their suffering and confusion.
A key element of the home is that residents who can, help those who can’t, the abler making sure that medications are not missed, rooms are kept clean and basic rules are followed. As one member put it, “Participating in life at the home gives me the strength to try and change my life – to have a positive attitude and improve the quality of life.”
Hogar de la Esperanza is near the Seminario Mayor in Paso Ancho, in southern San José. For information or to inquire about making donations, call 286-4000 or e-mail [email protected].
Improv for AIDS Sufferers
The Little Theatre Group (LTG) is organizing a special event Dec. 30, with proceeds earmarked for Hogar de la Esperanza. Toronto-based Phil McCordic returns to LTG’s Blanche Brown Theatre in the western suburb of Escazú to donate his time and talent to two improvisation workshop sessions.
Why so special? McCordic, who has years of experience performing and teaching improv techniques, works in the Canadian television industry and was a stalwart of the lauded, Emmy-winning “Second City TV” improvisation show.
During his first workshop for LTG last year, McCordic wowed and challenged workshop participants with segments such as “Trial By Fire” and “Building Character: More than Just Eating Your Broccoli.”
No previous acting experience is required, and the workshop proved so popular last year that available spaces in the upcoming sessions are filling fast. Each session costs ¢10,000 (about $20) per participant; nonparticipating observers can sit in for ¢5,000 (about $10) per session. As well as pledging financial support to the shelter, LTG hopes to raise awareness and prevent the spread of HIV+/AIDS in Costa Rica. Inviting the shelter’s choir to perform next year in the theater is high on the agenda.
For more information, contact Mary White at 265-5085 or [email protected].