Marta Pirzadeh is a technical officer on FHI 360’s Research Utilization Youth Team.

At the height of the U.S. “AIDS crisis” in the late 1980s and 90s, I was a college student volunteering at Planned Parenthood in upstate NY. At that time, I could not imagine that I would end up in South Africa working with HIV youth programs more than 20 years later.  But, that’s exactly where I was a few weeks ago. Youth program staff from LoveLife, South African Council of Churches (SACC), Family Life Association of Swaziland (FLAS) and AMICALL-Swaziland attended a training that I facilitated on a new resource developed by FHI 360, Promoting Partner Reduction: Helping young people understand and avoid HIV risks from multiple partnerships (PPR).  This was my first trip to Africa, and although my role was to provide training to the participants, I am the one who learned something. If you have ever traveled to South Africa, you know the countryside is awe-inspiring, the historic struggles for freedom are still apparent and the people are warm and welcoming. But, my experience also served as a reminder of the path that brought me to this point and may resonate with you, as well.

Like most public health professionals, the reasons I entered this field were noble. I was an enthusiastic college student being introduced to public health at a very exciting time. I felt like I was making a difference.  I did street outreach; gave out condoms in gay bars, bus stops and hair salons; I led HIV prevention programs in prisons, low-income housing communities and clinics. This is the same kind of work that the participants who attended my training are doing in South Africa and Swaziland now. But times have changed, HIV rates in the U.S. have dropped dramatically and I fear that many people think that AIDS is no longer “our problem”(of course, we know that is not true). Things have changed for me, too. Now, I sit in a third floor office of a mirrored building at FHI 360 headquarters in Durham, NC.  I attend international conferences and work with some of the most influential public health leaders in the world, yet my trip to South Africa reminded me of why I continue to be inspired by this work.

At the end of my trip, I had the opportunity to spend a day with loveLife staff and program participants in Orange Farm, an informal settlement outside Johannesburg.  Orange Farm is the biggest and most populous informal settlement in the country, home to nearly 350,000 people—mostly living in shacks, often unskilled, scraping out a living day-to-day. But, I saw a much different side of Orange Farm. Unlike other informal communities, which consist largely of dilapidated dwellings, many shacks in Orange Farm are well-maintained and colorful, with tidy gardens. Despite their circumstances, the residents clearly take pride in their community. I had the opportunity to visit loveLife programs at a clinic, local school and youth center.  At the youth center, I met peer educators (called “groundBreakers”) with that spark in their eyes. You know the spark: you’ve seen it and perhaps experienced it. I know I have….it’s the belief that you alone can change the world. Here they are, living and working with limited resources and innumerable obstacles and yet, they are not daunted by the task at hand. Like the rest of us in the HIV prevention world, their goal is to contribute to an HIV-free generation, not just in Orange Farm, across South Africa or Swaziland, but globally. They are doing their part, and they reminded me that I am doing mine.

The truth is, we can all benefit from a reminder every now and then. I came back to my office reinvigorated, inspired and motivated to continue to support programs in developing countries with the tools that will help them do their daily work: educating and inspiring young people the same way I did on the streets, in the bars and clinics so many years ago. I was reminded that we all have a role to play. It’s easy to become complacent or to sit in my comfortable office wondering if what I am doing even matters. But, the reception I received from the youth program staff in South Africa told quite a different story. They were desperate for new resources and excited to have the opportunity to learn. Although I was there providing training and technical assistance to them, I am the one who returned with an education. After 20 years of working with public health programs in the U.S., the two weeks I spent in South Africa will forever change my perspective.  On some level, I feel like I have come full circle from my volunteer days at Planned Parenthood but on the other hand, I don’t feel like I’ve changed at all. There is still much work to be done, both from my third floor office and on the streets of communities like Orange Farm…and only by working together do we stand a chance of reaching our common goal of an HIV-free generation,”

Next week, Marta will share more about the training and the lessons she learned about young people and multiple concurrent partnerships.