HIV Center Gives New Life in Brazil
December 03, 2008, —By Rick D'Elia
At 16 and HIV-positive, Ana Paula da Silva de Castro
sometimes lived on the streets of Porto Alegre, Brazil, using cocaine, smoking
marijuana and sniffing glue. At age 19, she lost her first child, a 6-month-old
son. She was pregnant again at 21.
It was time for a change.
She sought refuge from the street in an auberge, a public house, and followed a
doctor's advice to prevent transmission of HIV to her unborn child.
Three months after giving birth to a healthy, HIV-free
daughter, Eduarda Gabriela, a new friend introduced Ana to Frei Luis Carlos
Lunardi and Cristiane Saraiva Marins. The two managed a wellness center, Casa Fonte
Colombo, and welcomed Ana into a new world where she learned how she
could live with HIV.
Now she had a future.
Casa Fonte Colombo was established in 1999 to provide counseling and
education as well as other social and referral services for people
living with HIV. To date, 700,000 people in
Brazil have tested positive for HIV, with 400,000 developing AIDS. Luckily,
230,000 people are receiving antiretroviral medications to help them manage the
Staffed by 4 Capuchin brothers and 30 volunteers, Fonte Colombo sees an
average of 600 clients a month. A total of 1,300 families have taken
advantage of the center since its inception. The staff works with clients to
teach them about the disease and help them adjust to their treatment. They base
their work on the premise of Christ's teaching that maintenance and respect for
life is fundamental.
Operated by the Social Pastoral Agency for AIDS (Pastoral da AIDS), an agency of the National Conference of
Brazilian Bishops, and funded by Catholic Relief Services, Casa Fonte Colombo's
goal is to provide compassionate treatment and care for all people living with
HIV. The Pastoral da AIDS maintains a strong working relationship with the
Brazilian ministry of health. The ministry provides HIV testing and free antiretroviral
drugs to citizens in need.
Putting the Pieces Together
With Fonte Colombo's help, Ana began to understand the
disease, how to be vigilant with her medication and how to keep herself
generally healthy. Referrals from the center connected her to classes in Porto Alegre, where she studies computer technology and acting.
She began making friends—one in particular, Salatiel Braga
Silva, was to be her future husband. With his help and with that of a psychologist
at the center, she put drugs behind her and began to believe in herself.
Ana joined a Casa Fonte Colombo theater group that produces
plays that depict what it's like to live with HIV. She also became an advocate
for others with HIV in Porto Alegre. When a UNESCO-funded HIV grant program
began hiring advocates to reach out to families with children recently diagnosed
with HIV, Cristiane recommended that Ana apply for the position.
"In activities at Fonte Colombo, she
demonstrated that she was a serious and responsible person," Cristiane explains.
"She demonstrated the wish to change her life, to grow up through learning
at school or through any other possibilities like this [UNESCO program]."
Ana spent the next two years reaching out to families with
newly diagnosed children whose fear of the disease prevented them from pursuing
treatment. She also worked with doctors to find people who needed help and used
her experiences to calm their fears about the disease and coax them into
She became an advocate and an example to others.
Bringing It Home
Although Ana's life continued to improve, it was not without its battles. While
she had given up drugs, Salatiel was drinking heavily. They fought more than
they got along.
Ana and Salatiel's marriage was in trouble.
"Everybody at Fonte Colombo, especially the psychologist and friars,
would say, 'Take power over your life, have patience, talk to your husband. You
can improve your life and save your marriage.' "Ana did. She and the
center's counselors helped Salatiel give up alcohol in February 2008.
"We are very close now as a result of that," Ana says. "Casa
Fonte Colombo is 100 percent responsible for us being off drugs and off alcohol."
In May, the UNESCO grant expired and Ana found herself looking for another
job. Although she has computer experience, her limited credentials make it
difficult to find her first permanent job in a competitive field.
Meanwhile, the family survives on a monthly food box from Casa Fonte Colombo
and the $200 per month that Salatiel earns crafting purses and other useful
products from leather in his home workshop. The home they now live in belonged
to Salatiel's parents and is four times the size of the 15-foot square shack
the three used to share.
"Life would be very difficult if we didn't have Fonte Colombo for this
help. Before we had no friends," Ana says. "My parents are not
supportive, we're not close."
"After going to Fonte Colombo, we started making friends."
"On Christmas and New Year's Day, a group of friends from Fonte Colombo
came here to have a barbecue," she says, smiling.
"Everyone helped with food…an event at our house with our new friends.
"They are our family."
Rick D'Elia is an Arizona-based photographer and writer. He has documented CRS projects in Cambodia,
Rwanda and Uganda. On his most recent trip he visited CRS programs in Brazil