Personal stories of HIV positive international volunteer travelers
Carlton Rounds, who has spent time in many countries on many continents, recognized a need for support for HIV positive or affected people away from home to do service projects abroad. To help bridge that need, Carlton established Volunteer Positive, which empowers people living with HIV to be engaged global citizens by creating service opportunities through partnerships abroad. Additionally, Volunteer Positive supports training and education for international volunteer organizations committed to proactive inclusion for people living with HIV. Volunteer Positive members are people whose lives have been affected by HIV, who are committed to human rights, and who have a deep passion for international service.
Stories From Actual Volunteer Positive Alumni
Advice from HIV+ Peace Corps volunteers
Jeremiah Johnson became infected with HIV while serving in Ukraine as a Peace Corps volunteer and as a result, the Peace Corps medically separated him, meaning that Jeremiah was judged unable to return to his assignment. Fortunately, the Peace Corps has a new policy in place “to ensure that applicants for Volunteer service who have legally disabling conditions, including HIV, are provided individualized medical assessment and are not automatically excluded from consideration,” thanks in part to the action Jeremiah took to contest the old policy. In an interview, Jeremiah discusses the hardships of living internationally and feelings of loneliness that contributed to his unsafe sexual encounter, gay stigma in Ukraine, and finding moral support from friends back home. Read Jeremiah’s story “Service Interruption” online in POZ magazine.
Jeremiah’s story reached another Peace Corps volunteer, Elizabeth Tunkle who, upon disclosing that she had been infected with HIV while serving in Zambia, was evaluated and told that she’d have to be separated. However, only a month later the program contacted her at home to clear her for return to Africa, perhaps because of people like Jeremiah who had challenged the policy earlier that year. Life in Lesotho, where Elizabeth had been reassigned, took an emotional toll on all of the volunteers stationed there, but Elizabeth had the added burden of keeping the HIV infection a secret, which led to her feeling isolated from the other volunteers. Part of this weight was lifted when she shared her story not only with the other volunteers, but with HIV positive Basotho (citizens of Lesotho) as well. Though she had dark days, she credits the sense of support from the community as well as her renewed sense of purpose as helping her fulfill her service. Elizabeth’s story was posted online by Idealist.
Michael, an AIDS activist and Peace Corps alum, became infected with HIV after his volunteer service, but has since continued to travel in the developing world. When his friend asked about getting and taking his medications while in some of the remote areas he visited, Michael said he took a supply to last a couple of months along and was never more than a couple of days away from a town where HIV medication was available. He said that there are usually no consequences of missing a few days’ worth of HIV medications as long as one is strong and healthy. In future travels, Michael will probably keep his HIV status private, citing potential security issues.
Another Peace Corps alum, Craig, served in West Africa before becoming infected with HIV. Since then, he has returned to his Peace Corps assignment site in Africa and has also visited Latin America. Craig brought extra supplies of medications along for each trip and was confident about getting additional medications if he ran out. Regarding opportunistic infections and diseases, Craig feels that travel to much of Africa and some other parts of the developing world could be too risky for people with HIV. Fortunately, the Peace Corps operates in several countries where the risk of such opportunistic diseases is minor.
Both Michael and Craig are friends of the editor at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender US Peace Corps Alumni site.