Grassroots hero: thinking out of the box by mixing health and fun

There is a quiet hum in the room from the mostly young men sitting in chairs, eyeing their smartphones and chatting. Suddenly, a cheerful figure bursts into the executive lounge of the high-rise building in Taguig City, Philippines.

“Thank you, thank you,” said Ronivin (Vinn) Garcia Pagtakhan, the Executive Director and Founder of LoveYourself, a community-based organization providing health and empowerment services to men who have sex with men and transgender people. The team were wrapping up after a major event promoting HIV testing.

IMG_6755Mr Pagtakhan, with his shock of brown hair, frosted with a light green tint, bounced from one group to the next, joking and repeating his thanks.

Almost everyone here is a volunteer,” explained Mr Pagtakhan. “I get really moved when I talk about my volunteers. I owe everything to them.”

LoveYourself provides HIV testing and treatment services, as well as oral pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and tuberculosis screening. It has 25 staff members, who are supported by around 800 volunteers. Mr Pagtakhan founded LoveYourself in 2011, modelling it on a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth centre he volunteered in while living in San Francisco, United States of America.

“At the time, I felt there was a real problem with the way we were handling HIV prevention among the gay community in the Philippines,” said Mr Pagtakhan. “It was all about fear. I wanted something more optimistic and encouraging. I wanted a place that was lively, where people would want to hang out.”

He was only 25 years old at the time. “As they say, I know my market, because I am part of the community.”

He graduated from nursing school in the Philippines when he was 18 and got the fourth highest score on the national nursing board examinations. “This meant that I was in high demand by other candidates as a teacher helping to prepare people for their licensing exams. I travelled around the Philippines giving classes and I used social media to reach out to students as well,” said Mr Pagtakhan.

IMG_6758He became a celebrity on social media, with 600 000 followers on Twitter, and won the prestigious international Twitter Shorty Awards as the Nurse of the Year. The prize money helped start LoveYourself.

“The first three years, it was like sending your child off to college. I basically supported the organization on my earnings. We didn’t have any donors,” said Mr Pagtakhan. “I like to think out of the box and I had a particular vision. I didn’t want grants to dictate what we did or became. I wanted to create ripples of positive change in the community. LoveYourself isn’t just about HIV, but rather about increasing a person’s self-worth.

The organization has three community centres in the Manila, Philippines, area offering HIV testing and other services. Anyone can drop in, even on the weekends and in the evenings, for free health services.

LoveYourself tested about 20 000 people in 2016 and diagnosed around 1500 new HIV infcetions, which represent around 50% of the newly diagnosed HIV cases reported by the Department of Health in Manila. LoveYourself also works with companies and schools to help them develop HIV policies and to conduct on-site HIV tests.

In July, the organization began piloting PrEP and with support from UNAIDS and the World Health Organization plans to start a demonstration project offering self-testing before the end of the year.

In just six years, LoveYourself has grown to become an important HIV service provider in Manila. Mr Pagtakhan is proud of the organization’s achievements and has bigger ambitions. “We are still renting. I want LoveYourself to own a place, which is a community centre, where we can have health services but also original events and activities,” he said.

For more information on LoveYourself, go to http://www.loveyourself.ph.

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