St. Maarten – After 23 years of spreading HIV/Aids prevention and awareness on the island, the St. Maarten Aids Foundation officially opened its secretariat yesterday, and it got off to a good start with a generous donation of more than $100,000 from the Bank of Nova Scotia.
The new offices are located on the third floor of the Sun Insurances Building in Cole Bay opposite Tropicana Casino. It houses a conference room, two office spaces and a lobby area full of multi- lingual paraphernalia on HIV/Aids. The walls are all decorated with the symbolic red ribbons and the foundation plans to create a discreet space for testing and counseling activities.
It is a dream come through for the Aids Foundation’s president Dr. Gerard Van Osch who said that acquiring a physical location represents progress for all and sends a strong signal that many of the goals that the foundation has set for itself are achievable.
“The St. Maarten Aids Foundation has developed a 5 year plan and has hired full time staff because we have a vision that together we can create an island without new HIV infections, universal access to treatment for all persons living with HIV/Aids and an environment free of stigma and discrimination. This will be the home of the foundation but we sincerely hope it will become your home as well,” Dr. Van Osch said.
He added that “Internationally there is a growing tendency of HIV fatigue. Many other issues are equally important such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, preserving nature and our heritage. Many more deserve the same attention. But unless we continue to fight and come up with creative solutions all the gains of the past years in our HIV/Aids campaign will be gone. And we do see gains. The past 3 years we’ve seen the first glimmer of reduced new infections. More people are getting tested and know their HIV status. More people receive treatment. For many years we haven’t seen new babies born with HIV on St. Maarten. So there is progress. But to continue this course and to step up to that plate, we can’t give in to that HIV fatigue we can’t give up.”
The fatigue that Dr. Van Osch spoke of was addressed by Prime Minister Sarah Wescot-Williams when she addressed the capacity crowd in the new Bendaly boardroom.
“The perceived possibility of Aids fatigue is real. The choices we have to make as a community and government require resources that are not limitless. Which organizations do you assist as a government? It is because of the dedication and commitment of Dr. Van Osch and his team that I that in terms of Aids fatigue, it is not going to be that bad on St. Maarten as long as we have the persons leading the pack and making sure that it stays on our minds because it is important. We should not allow ourselves, because we have made some strides, to feel that we can rest on our laurels. No, we need to continue the fight to continue to engage the different sectors of the community because that is the reach and width of the Aids pandemic,” the prime minister said.
She added that the Aids Foundation is a very strong partner with government on its HIV/Aids response program and with the foundation’s recent achievement, the collaboration will only grow.
The secretariat will be occupied on a daily basis by executive director Rae Merlet and community projects coordinator Kimberly Meijers but Dr. Van Osch hopes that it will also become a meeting place for youth, persons living with HIV/Aids, community and religious leaders and other sectors of society. The intention is to make hub a place where people can access information, uplift free condoms, benefit from free testing and participate in future workshops.
The opening of the office comes just on the heels of the installation of a new board at the organization. It comprises Dr. Van Osch as chairman, Ria Uiterloo as secretary, Rajesh Chintaman as treasurer, Suzette Moses-Burton (government’s HIV/Aids program manager) and lawyer Brenda Brooks.
At the ceremony were numerous volunteers, French HIV/Aids counterparts Liaisons Dangereuses and Aides as well as a few nurses, counselors and doctors of the Marigot Hospital. Parliamentarian Gracita Arrindell, corporate agencies and other foundation heads to offer congratulations to the St. Maarten Aids Foundation.
Upon the symbolic unveiling of the offices, visitors were surprised to find the following words written on wall of the foundation’s lobby, “We don’t know how strong we are until being strong is the only choice we have. Victory over Aids.”
The foundation plans to intensify its campaigns in 2013 to target three specific groups; youth, immigration population and men who have sex with men. Sexual reproductive health in its entirety will also be focused on.