HOPE officials, above with founder Ivy Moses at center right, hosted a candle light vigil and procession though Cruz Bay on Friday night, November 30, which drew Miss World USVI Taiesa Lashley, at center left.
The U.S. Virgin Islands has one of the highest rates of HIV and AIDS in the country, yet a stigma about the disease remains.
Through Helping Others in a Positive Environment, Inc. (HOPE), which offers free HIV testing, counselling and other resources, Ivy Moses has been battling that sentiment for more than a decade.
As groups across the globe hosted walks and programs over the weekend to mark World AIDS Day, HOPE officials led a candle light vigil and procession through Cruz Bay on Friday evening, November 30.
The evening began with a candle light vigil at Nazareth Lutheran Church and Moses, who founded HOPE 12 years ago, highlighted the need to partner with local faith-based organizations in the fight against AIDS.
“We need to get more faith-based organizations involved in this,” said Moses. “We’re not seeing a lot of involvement, so we need to go out and engage people and try to raise more awareness. We will go out to where we are needed.”
Awareness about the disease is one of the key priorities for HOPE, explained Moses.
“We have one of the highest rates of AIDS in the entire country and people don’t even know that,” she said. “We need to make people more aware of the fact that AIDS is out there and get more people involved with this reality.”
While HOPE offers free HIV testing throughout the territory, Moses still estimated that a large portion of the population remains unsure of their status, she explained.
“Everyone should know their status,” said Moses. “We are testing people on all three islands, so we are seeing more people out there getting tested. “But there are a lot of cases that we are not seeing.”
“Everyone needs to get tested,” Moses said. “Knowing your status is the first step in understanding the disease.”
Moses is also striving to change long-standing pre-conceived attitudes about AIDS and HIV, she added.
“We are slowly seeing more acceptance in the community, but there is still a stigma and discrimination out there,” said Moses.
Federal grants which allow HOPE and other organizations to offer services for free, might not be around for ever, Moses added.
“Right now, treatment and care free, but with so much change and the economy still in trouble, you don’t know how long these services will be available for,” she said.
Armed with a basketful of condoms and information about proper condom usage, Moses led a small procession, which included Nazareth Lutheran Church Pastor Carlyle Sampson and Bethany Moravian Church Pastor Ralph Prince as well as Miss World USVI Taiesa Lashley, through Cruz Bay to Frank Powell Park.
Lashley joined the event in order to help raise awareness about the prevalence of AIDS and HIV in the territory, she explained.
“I came out because there is still a stigma related to AIDS and HIV and there should not be,” said Lashley. “I think this is something we can change. We can raise awareness about the disease and change people’s attitudes.”
In addition to free HIV testing, AIDS counselling and support services, HOPE also offers BMI testing, hepatitis testing as well as glucose testing and hyper tension screening. And HOPE’s services are free.
“HOPE has never charged for any of its services in 12 years,” said Moses.
Although Moses has seen attitudes and statistics slowly change in her 12 years with HOPE, she hopes to see even more progress in the future.
“It’s been 12 years already, but I’m hoping to make it 20 and to say, ‘Look at how different things are now,’” she said.
HOPE has offices on all three islands. On St. John, find HOPE on the third floor of The Marketplace. For more information, call the group at 776-1611.