Mar 31, 2013 News Comments Off on Monique’s Caring Hands Support Centre… Helping to change the social fabric of our society, one client at a time
By Jenelle Willabus
The HIV/AIDS epidemic is one which affects persons from all walks of life, but when it took the life of a young woman some 13 years ago, that helped paved the way for an organization that today helps numerous individuals and families.
Monique’s Caring Hands Support Centre was launched in 2000 and was officially registered as a Non-Governmental Organization which offers support not only to persons living with HIV/AIDS but
for many consumed by social ills.
Located at Lot 18 Norton Street, Newburg, Monique’s as it is commonly called was the brainchild of Mrs. Dawn Stewart. Mrs. Stewart was a Military Nurse based in the United States of America where she worked, but her heart was always with the country of her birth, Guyana. Being in the medical field, Mrs. Stewart was privileged to attend the World Epidemiology Conference to talk about HIV/AIDS more than a decade ago. However, returning to Guyana at the time was not in her immediate plans. But as fate would have it, while attending the conference she recalled being seated next to an Epidemiologist and being privy to world statistics on HIV/AIDS.
“As I was talking to this man, he asked where I was from and I said the US, and he said ‘where were you born, I’m picking up an accent?’… and when I said Guyana his face lit up and he started showing me infection rates and other stuff, and he pleaded with me to go back to Guyana and do some work.”
Paying little attention to what she was urged to do, she went back to work. Not long after she received a letter from the Epidemiologist further encouraging her to return to her country of birth to “bring about a change”.
This was enough to stir something inside of her, so she began meeting with Caribbean leaders in the United States to see what could be done from the Diaspora standpoint to help fight HIV/AIDS. During one of her first meetings with Caribbean leaders, the Caribbean American Agenda for HIV/AIDS was discussed and out of that the Caribbean People International Collective Inc. (CPIC) – the parent company of Monique’s Caring Hands was formed. But for Mrs. Stewart that was still not enough to bring help to Guyana.
The meeting and the formation of the group was followed by a visit
to Guyana and other Caribbean countries where surveys were done to see what could have been done to address the rapidly growing epidemic of HIV/AIDS. While working with the Diaspora, Mrs. Stewart met another woman with the same newfound passion. But what came next for her and her friend was too much to handle.
“A woman on the group we were working with had a daughter named Monique Gildarie and she went into the embassy preparing to go to the United States but she was informed that she was HIV-positive.”
Not only was this news devastating for Monique’s mother and other relatives, but it was a wake-up call for Mrs. Stewart.
Shortly after, at just 20 years old, Monique died, but something exceptional and lifesaving was birthed. At the first meeting held at Monique’s Caring Hands’ Norton Street office, there were dozens of other ‘Moniques’ who just needed a place to go for a listening ear, advice or just a place to shed some bottled-up tears. Ever since the first meeting back in 2000 not much has changed at Monique’s Caring Hands. As a matter of fact the range of services has expanded as it was found that the issue of HIV/AIDS was just a fraction of the bigger picture in the area of social ills which face Guyanese today.
While HIV/AIDS continues to be one of the group’s main focuses, other areas of focus include domestic violence, child abuse, human trafficking, poverty dysfunctional families, substance abuse and at the same time promoting overall healthy lifestyle. To this end, training in all of the above areas is done with persons who visit the organization seeking help. This unique group has programmes specially tailored for persons with almost every need.
Some of these programs include; Health, improving the health care response to persons involved in risky behaviour. Employers and Employees; creating a safe workplace and enacting policies that help prevent violence. Leadership Training Programs; this is done through building community leadership to grown skills and foster sustainability. Women and Girls; advancing the health and wellbeing of women and girls to build stronger communities, preventing violence against women and children in communities served. Men and Boys; teaching men to be good role models which is an integral part in breaking the cycle of violence and at the same time coaching boys into becoming good men through outreaches in the different communities.
Notably, what is a little different to this organization’s approach to combating the spread of HIV/AIDS, is the fact that emphasis is placed on every other aspect of growing up.
“What we found over the years was that HIV/AIDS was actually the end result of a cycle of other underlying social issues, so what we seek to do is to deal with all the other issues and offer assistance in whatever way we possibly can,” Mrs. Stewart explained.
From its inception, Monique’s Caring Hands has been hosting an annual youth camp which would see youths from across the country coming together to set goals and interact with others, all with the aim of becoming better individuals. Unfortunately, for the past two years the camp was not held due to the lack of funding, and much to the dismay of many youths who look forward to it.
For Mrs. Stewart and her staff, the youth camp was something they too looked forward to, and over the one-week period for the camp they met youths from every walk of life who had a story waiting to be told with the hope of getting help for a burning issue they were facing.
She recounted that recently while attending a function a neatly dressed policeman walked up to her, to boast of his accomplishments, having successfully completed secondary school and joining the Guyana Police Force. Mrs. Stewart said she felt a sense of deep delight when the young man related to her that several years ago he had attended one of the camps and held onto to her advice to stay in school get educated and seek gainful employment.
Over the years the organization has teamed up with others which champion the same cause to host many programmes targeting vulnerable. For example, through the ‘Journey of Life’ programme, in collaboration with the National AIDS Programme Secretariat, messages about HIV/AIDS and adapting healthy lifestyles was able to reach thousands of youths countrywide. According to Mrs. Stewart, partnership of this nature is needed. It is her hope that “more organizations will step up their game when it comes to collaborative efforts”.
She then emphasized that funding is needed and this is where corporate Guyana should get more involved.
“I would like to see big companies coming on board and sponsoring these community-based organisations and at the same time holding them accountable for what they do with the funding they receive…That way these companies will get value for their money.”
In the meantime, while funding continues to be an issue, Mrs. Stewart and her two remaining staffers, Ms. Sandra Brandt and Ms. Roslyn Wade, remain dedicated to their pursuits. The trio can be found in the office doing what has become routine.
For Ms. Wade, her motivation will always be the story of ‘Michelle’ a hard working mother who died of HIV/AIDS leaving her young children behind.
Ms. Wade recalls first coming across ‘Michelle’ while she was in a coma several years ago at the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation.
“We would normally do hospital visits at the GPHC and one day we met this woman and we learnt that she came out of the interior with malaria, so every day when I went to the hospital I would go check on ‘Michelle’ until she came out of the coma.”
She said initially they never believed that ‘Michelle’ would have survived, but miraculously she did, and they quickly struck up a friendship. She recalled that ‘Michelle’ was then told after a series of tests that she was HIV-positive. The news was devastating for the young woman, who had gone to work in the interior with her husband just to ensure a better standard of living for their kids. Eventually ‘Michelle’ was discharged from the hospital and her only support was Ms. Wade whom she depended on to break the news to her family members.
“I think worrying killed Michelle faster. I will always remember the Sunday morning when we went to Michelle’s mother’s home to break the news, it was very emotional and still is today, because Michelle’s mother was sickly,” she recalled.
Mrs. Stewart has also had her fair share of attachment stories, many of the persons dying, causing much pain – including Monique Gildarie, Latoya Conway (who was murdered by her partner) and a few others.
But there is one special young lady who gives the founder a reason to smile and keep on going. Several years ago, one of their volunteers in Mahaicony contacted Mrs. Stewart and informed her of a young woman who needed their help. It was found that the young woman ‘Rhonda’ had nowhere to live.
The staffers of Monique’s Caring Hands immediately put their resources together and found a home for ‘Rhonda’. Not long after the woman became pregnant, and during the pregnancy it was found that she was HIV- positive.
‘Rhonda’ eventually gave birth to a bouncing baby boy, but against doctor’s advice, she began breastfeeding her son who was then infected with HIV. Mrs. Stewart and her staff tried to keep ‘Rhonda’ on the radar as they continued to offer support in every possible way. Not long after she became pregnant again, despite being told of the consequences of her actions. Her second child was a precious little girl, but ‘Rhonda’ began refusing the help she was being offered.
Not long after, Mrs. Stewart recalled getting a phone call again from Mahaicony informing her that ‘Rhonda’ had abandoned her then three-month-old daughter at Mahaicony Creek and was nowhere to be found.
“I remember clearly it was a Saturday. I hurried up to the location and I collected the baby with the intention of taking her to the Ministry of Human Services on the Monday morning. When I took ‘Miracle’ home, my husband asked where I was going with that baby.”
Ms. Stewart said her husband was clearly fond of ‘Miracle’ and with Monday morning approaching she was a bit hesitant to carry her away.
“I was worried for this baby, she was so tiny and helpless and I didn’t want her to end up in a home or at the hospital, so I decided that I would keep her until she got a little bigger then I would take her in.”
Now, three years later, ‘Miracle’ still wakes up in Mrs. Stewart’s bed and is the centre of her household. But the story of little ‘Miracle doesn’t end there, it was subsequently learnt that ‘Miracle’s’ mother, whom Mrs. Stewart had been helping for years, was her relative. Before ‘Rhonda’ died, she was able to relate that she could not take care of ‘Miracle’ and was happy that she had found a safe, new home.
These are just a few of the many happy endings that have given the staff at Monique’s Caring Hands the courage to repeatedly keep doing their good deeds.
Now above all, they insist that they will each remain committed to giving consideration to the principle that all persons are created for a purpose, regardless of the physical appearance and weaknesses, and always provide their services when needed.
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