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A Volunteer In The Fight Against HIV/AIDS In The U-S - 2003-01-22

As researchers look for a cure or vaccine for HIV/AIDS, many of those trying to stop the spread of the pandemic are volunteers. They donate many hours of their time caring for patients or raising awareness about the disease. One such volunteer in the United States is a Zimbabwean man.

Far from Zimbabwe, in the north-central US city of Minneapolis, Minnesota, Neville Ansley donates his time as an American Red Cross AIDS educator.

He came to the United States in 1997 when his wife was hired by a large Minneapolis company. But long before then, in 1981, he first saw the impact of HIV/AIDS.

He says, "I’m actually a Zimbabwean by birth. And after the political changes in Zimbabwe in the early 80’s, I left to move down to South Africa. And in the Early to mid 90’s, one of the guys I worked with became very seriously ill with HIV and AIDS related illnesses. He couldn’t drive himself to his treatments and his family asked me to do it. And I drove him for quite a while backwards and forwards from his appointments. He eventually died of AIDS-related complications."

Upon his arrival in the United States, Mr. Ansley had a lot of free time on his hands. That led him to volunteer work.

"When I got into Minnesota, my wife is a computer specialist and I didn’t have a visa to work," he says. "She had the h-one-v visa. So I had four years while I was waiting for my green card to come through, I read an ad in the paper asking for drivers for the Minnesota AIDS project."

He says whereas HIV/AIDS is often in the news in many African countries, that’s no longer the case in the United States.

Mr. Ansley says, "Generally in the US today, HIV, because it’s on the back burner (not an immediate concern) in the media – unless it’s a celebrity and a high profile person we don’t ready much about HIV and AIDS any more. And when we do it’s all related to countries outside of the US. So the interest in HIV and the knowledge of HIV is really second hand knowledge."

Most of his AIDS education classes are geared toward middle school students, or pre-teenagers. He says their knowledge of the disease varies.

He says, "It really depends which kids you’re dealing with. You know, I’ve done the small towns outside Minneapolis / St. Paul. I’ve spoke to the small towns and they have a small town view of it. And they do react differently to the kids in town. I mean the downtown school in Minneapolis – the same kids at the same age – have a really different attitude toward sex and sexuality."

Mr. Ansley says students in the city have a much more open attitude when it comes to talking about sex.

"When we talk about postponing sex it’s like, well, what do we do then if we’re not going to have sex? Whereas, when you get down to the smaller towns, they’re not so open about sexual activities. If they are active, it’s not that obvious," he says.

He says he’s encountered a number of misconceptions about HIV/AIDS among American students in Minnesota. Some wrongly believe that mosquitoes can spread HIV. Another misconception is that condoms fail because they break – when in fact they more likely to fail because people do not know how to properly use them.

The Zimbabwean-born volunteer says even in an open society like the United States, simply talking about condoms to students can be a problem.

He says, "You know, it’s one of those things before going into a school and doing education that you have to have a discussion with the teacher. What can I say with regards to condoms? What can’t I say? Can I actually bring a condom out or can’t I? I think a hundred percent of the schools so far, none of them have allowed me to do a condom demonstration with a model, which is fine because you don’t need that to get the message across. But we need to put to bed the issues related with condoms: the safety levels and the idea about what are the issues that face kids with condoms."

But he says despite the widespread availability of AIDS medications in the United States – and the information that’s readily available about the disease, there’s still much work to be done.

"Twenty years down the road," he says, "we have issues around HIV that should never be there, like we have a higher percentage infection rate today than we did twenty years ago. And that thirty percent of people who are infected with HIV don’t even know they’re infected. To me that is more scary than any issue around condoms."

Besides teaching each week for the Red Cross, Neville Ansley takes the idea of volunteerism a bit further. He also volunteers at the airport helping passengers find their way around. And he regularly donates blood plasma and platelets. He does have a paying job, working for a company that helps people get out of debt.

But he says whenever he has a tough day at the office, a little volunteer work helps to put life in perspective. He says volunteer work is part of the American culture.