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Rae Merlet receives Elton Jones Award

4._Elton_Jones_Aw~ Candlelight Memorial envisions brighter future ~

The face of HIV/AIDS has drastically changed over the past decade. Gone are the images of death and hollow beings. Today, those living with HIV/AIDS in many parts of the world are the healthy looking, active parts of their communities and are on the forefront of awareness.

The annual International Candlelight Memorial, held on May 17, underscored the need to stay focused and not become complacent about the spread of HIV/AIDS and how very important was the day's theme "Supporting the Future."

The memorial event held on St. Maarten served as the forum for the presentation of the Annual Elton Jones Memorial Award by St. Maarten AIDS Foundation and Helping Ourselves in a Positive Environment (HOPE). This year, a frontline worker was chosen for the honour.

The award went to outgoing AIDS Foundation Secretariat Executive Director Rae Merlet. She was recognized for has steadfastness and commitment to HIV/AIDS awareness that goes well beyond the call of duty.

Merlet, who moved to St. Maarten from the United States, comes from the finance sector and was new to the HIV/AIDS field when she took up the challenge, which was stated to her in clear terms at the job interview: "The board asked me if I could develop a passion for this HIV work. I knew it was an open ended question."

And a passion she did develop and this has kept her on the forefront of the HIV preventative work along with the foundation's board and volunteers.

The Elton Jones Award, created in 2001, is for people who go the extra mile to prevent just one more infection or to support those living with the virus. It is to honour and thank them for dedication and exemplary work in the field of HIV on St. Maarten.

Presenting the award, AIDS Foundation President Dr. Gerard van Osch described Merlet, a mother of two girls, as someone who not only spends hours on planning and implementation of HIV prevention programme, but who knows "how to comfort a person infected with the virus, how to wrap an arm around a shoulder and show that HIV is treated best with a hug, one love at a time... Her writing skills are just about the best you can imagine. Her forward thinking is like none you've ever met before and all of this with calmness and a smile that brighten your day. Yep ... she can be stern too...but even that she does with a smile... You may say it's her paid job, but we think differently, because she has shown in the past few years, that you can love what you do and show dedication and exemplary work in the field of HIV, way beyond the call of duty."

Lighting the future

Iris Hakkens (16) was chosen by St. Maarten AIDS Foundation and HOPE to be the keynote speaker for the local memorial. Hakkens was direct in her approach: "Time is needed to oppose stigma and discrimination in our battle against HIV. I ask for your time as we support our members of the community by keeping the light burning on HIV."

She called on the gathering to take action as a community to act as pillars of support for persons living with or affected by HIV. "Take action by advocating for equality in their rights to treatment ... spreading awareness and fighting barrier stigmas."

Call for commitment

Public Health Minister Rita Bourne-Gumbs said the memorial was an opportunity to strengthen the fight against the discrimination and injustice which make the lives of people living with HIV and AIDS much harder: "Let us pledge our solidarity, love and understanding to all our fellow brothers and sisters, because the cruelty of this disease, affects all of us as a country. The illness, disability and death associated with this epidemic affect our population at multiple levels and in multiple ways."

The economic costs of addressing HIV and its effects, both in the health sector and in other sectors, divert resources from other investments critical to economic development. "This is how we are all affected by the cruelty of this disease," Bourne-Gumbs said, calling for a recommitment to talking to the youth and encouraging them to make healthy choices "by abstaining from sexual activity until they are old enough to understand the seriousness of their actions... We want our youth to focus on their education and on enjoying their youth."

She called on the religious community to help in effectively alleviating the suffering caused by HIV/AIDS and in assisting affected households. "Let us build a society where living with HIV or AIDS is not accompanied by a stigma which makes people lose their self-confidence and will to live. Anyone can become infected by HIV. Let us therefore work to remove the stigma and stereotypes."


St. Maarten Alliance for Equality (SAFE) was also part of the memorial, sharing its strides in promoting the Lesbian, Bi-sexual, Gay and Transgender cause in St. Maarten. The group has held several activities aimed at raising awareness and ending stigma.

SAFE President Lysanne Charles-Arrindell spoke about the marking of International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia on the island. She shared her experience of choosing her same-sex partner and the embrace she received from family, especially an aunt who recently passed away in Saba. That aunt embodied inclusion and support as she had only asked Charles-Arrindell if she was happy when she had told her about her marriage plans. Charles-Arrindell is wed to Morenika Arrindell-Charles.

For more information about AIDS Foundation (information and free confidential HIV tests) and HOPE, visit the Secretariat in the Sun Building in Cole Bay across from Tropicana Casino or call 588-4636//553-2626. To get in touch with SAFE, see SAFE SXM on Facebook.