AID FOR AIDS is, and always has been, a family affair. But, in reality, we are two families – the “AFA family,” which consists of our Board members, staff, our beneficiaries in 40-plus countries, and our many friends and supporters; and the Aguais family, who founded AID FOR AIDS and whose vision continues to inform all our work around the world.
The story of how Jesus Aguais created AFA out of some recycled medicine in his desk drawer is, by now, a familiar one. But there’s another significant part of the Aguais family history that you might not know, and that is the story of Jesus’ sister, Trina Maria Aguais, AFA Venezuela’s founder and the protagonist of the birth of our widespread Latin American and Caribbean operation. Here’s an abbreviated version of that 15-year saga:
The year was 1996, and Trina Maria Aguais, a wife (married to her childhood sweetheart) and mother of two daughters (“my great rewards,” she calls them), was managing her own women’s clothing boutique in Los Teques, Venezuela, and living a happy and relatively stress-free existence. Born in Caracas, Trina Maria was the sixth of seven Aguais siblings and the youngest of the female children. To her youngest brother, Jesus, Trina Maria was a confidant and partner in childhood mischief-making.
“We were the babies in the family, so we naturally bonded,” says Jesus. “When I was 7 years old, she taught me how to ‘whistle like a man,’ and, yes, the two of us created some mischief together.”
Trina Maria was quite content to continue in her entrepreneurial retail career, but when her little brother called from New York asking her to serve as an intermediary between his medicine storage closet and the people in Venezuela who needed the life-saving drugs, Trina could not refuse. And, little by little, Trina Maria’s clothing store began to acquire a whole new identity in the community, as the place where desperate people went to pick up their little yellow, numbered medicine packets of hope.
“Trina was always behind the retail counter, handing out the packets with a smile and accepting thank-you’s from grateful recipients,” says her niece, Lucia Aguais. “She took this task very seriously, especially maintaining strict confidentiality.”
Jesus adds that those early AFA beneficiaries saw in Trina Maria not only a source of life-saving medicine, but a warm-hearted listener and friend, and without knowing anything about HIV itself, Trina Maria quickly became the face of HIV services in her town.
“All the positive energy simply enveloped her,” says Lucia. “And as the number of recipients grew, so did her desire to be a part of something much bigger than herself.”
However, the transition into this new role was anything but easy. Rumors spread throughout the town that Trina Maria’s store was a den of disease, a hangout for unsavory characters who carried the AIDS plague, and that Trina Maria herself was a lesbian with AIDS who was trying to poison the soul of the entire community.
But rather than succumb to this malicious gossip, Trina Maria confronted it head-on. With the strong support of her family, she closed her store in 1997 and opened AFA Venezuela, the organization’s first Latin American satellite office. She was now a full-time AIDS service worker and activist, and anyone who didn’t like what she was doing was not worth her time and energy.
Nevertheless, community consternation was not the only obstacle Trina Maria faced in the early days of AFA Venezuela. Her career change also entailed a major financial sacrifice on the part of her family. But the family managed to scrape through, and to this day, Trina Maria has never regretted the decision to trade material well-being for a life of service.
Meanwhile, Trina Maria’s background in entrepreneurship came in handy in organizing the new operation, but she still had to undergo a rigorous education in HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention (which she compares with going back to school). The Venezuelan satellite office was AFAI’s first feet on the ground in Latin America, working closely with beneficiaries and their health care providers throughout the country to ensure continuity of, and adherence to, medical treatment.
Trina Maria proved to be a quick study in HIV, and as her knowledge of the epidemic grew, so did her empathy for all AFA’s beneficiaries. But, as a mother and big sister, no group was closer to her heart than children living with HIV, and once the Venezuelan office’s Treatment Access Initiative was up and running, Trina Maria took on a mission to create a major program specifically for kids.
Among all the at-risk populations in Latin America, children were perhaps the hardest hit by HIV, as they totally lacked the coping skills and maturity to deal with a mountain of discrimination, rejection and discouragement. Things were even worse for the rapidly-growing number of HIV-infected children who had lost one or both parents to the epidemic. At the time, there were very few people, including doctors, actively encouraging children to adhere to their medication regimens. Doctors and parents were woefully misinformed about treatment and prevention, and caregivers, in general, were emotionally and financially overwhelmed.
All these problems ignited Trina Maria’s maternal instinct. With her own savings, and later through some personal local fundraising, she was able to kick-start the children’s initiative by purchasing Christmas trees, toys to put under those trees, and even the services of a Santa Claus. The Children’s Party soon expanded to incorporate a much more substantial array of services, including support groups, individual crisis counseling, education (reading and writing instruction) and a series of play activities designed to build children’s self-esteem and empower them to not only handle their own condition, but mentor younger children entering the program.
About this we talked with Genesis, a former beneficiafy of the Children’s Program in Venezuela: “I am 20 years old, and 16 living with HIV. I met AID FOR AIDS and Trina Maria when I was only 8 years old and since then, they have provided support to my parents and I. Adolescence was a very difficult time for me, so I began to rebel against my health situation and I felt that it was not worth moving forward. Trina Maria and all the wonderful team of AFA gave me many tools and information, they taught me to love life despite adversity and above all to love to myself. They also gave me the opportunity to help and support others who are in similarly health condition and to share my experience with people that are not living with HIV”.
In 1998, Trina Maria packed up and left Venezuela for Peru, where she launched the first AFA Peru office (which, of course, featured a children’s program). A year later, it was off to Dominican Republic to create another satellite office. And, finally, in 2005, Trina Maria and her family packed up for good and moved to Panama to establish that satellite office.
Today, the Panamanian Children’s Program, which encompasses nearly 300 youngsters 3 to 15 years old, is the largest of the four national Children’s initiatives. That widely-praised program operates out of the Children’s Hospital in Panama City.
Melvin, a 19 years-old Panamanian who participated in the program since he was 12 years old, also commented about his relationship with Trina: “My three brothers and I were orphaned at an early age and I grew up alone being cared for only by an uncle. But, since I came to AFA, I received amazing support and I felt that I had found a new family. I got so close to Trina, that I even started calling her ‘Mother’. Thanks to her support and advice I’m alive, I was able to finish high school and I won a scholarship to a private university. Thanks to her, I am what I am today. She is my role model and in the future, I wish to follow her example and help people like me who are also living with HIV. ”
“If you look back on all the things that Trina has accomplished in terms of growing our Latin and Caribbean operations, I believe the creation of the Children’s Program has been her most important achievement,” says Dr. Jaime Valencia, AFA director of operations, who has worked closely with Trina for more than a decade. “That program, from the very beginning, has been her 24/7 passion…I have never met anyone whose dedication to helping children is greater than Trina’s.”