These young people are tackling the ongoing challenge of HIV/AIDS

·4 min read

Brampton teenager Arihant Boli only joined HIV/AIDS charity LetsStopAIDS last summer, but has already moderated a panel at its own virtual conference and attended others on its behalf.

The 14-year-old, a Grade 9 student in the international baccalaureate program at Notre Dame Catholic Secondary School, also leads a team of five teenagers planning its new “24-hour wake” project and has done research into a new coping technique to add to the charity's services for people living with the blood-borne virus and associated syndrome.

“If I can find a way to join something and help empower the youth, who knows what world we can create,” Boli said in a video interview when asked about his motivations.

“It is so rewarding to think although the large goal (of eliminating AIDS by 2030) is far away from where we are, we have to climb small steps to get to the goal,” said Boli, who plans to study medicine and wants to be a neurosurgeon.

There were more than 62,000 people living with HIV in Canada at the end of 2018, according to national estimates, while some 23 million people live with either HIV or AIDS worldwide.

One of the steps Boli is taking to tackle the challenge is leading efforts to deliver a global event sometime in the back half of 2021 where students from around the world will stay awake for 24 hours straight to raise money and awareness for AIDS treatment and research.

He hopes thousands of people across the globe will take part, and that it will, in turn, produce a domino effect.

“Say 10,000 people do it, (then) each of those 10,000 people maybe they create their own fundraiser and a thousand people take part,” he said. “One small step can result in really a lot of change. That, I would say, is probably the most inspiring thing” about the work.

Boli is one of scores of young people who volunteer with the Toronto-based charity, which was founded by then 15-year-old Shamin Mohamed Jr. with some other high school students in 2004 to inspire young people to tackle HIV/AIDS in their own communities.

For Dylan Cain, who’s finishing his last semester of a graphic communications management degree at Ryerson University and also volunteers with the group, working out how to reach young people is key to spreading education and reducing stigma.

“You can have a really important message, but if you can't properly communicate it to the right audience, then what's the point?” said the 28-year-old content strategist.

That means creating compelling content that can be easily shared on social media sites such as TikTok and Instagram and chat platforms like WhatsApp and Snapchat.

“Getting the correct information out there will help others understand things better and hopefully change the way they think about it,” he said, noting that was a journey he also undertook over recent years.

“I admit I didn't know much about HIV/AIDS a few years ago, and I was susceptible to having certain opinions,” Cain said. “But now after educating myself and learning from other people's stories, I plan to be a supportive friend for anyone who chooses to confide in me.”

Boli, the high schooler, also works as a research analyst for the charity, where he is part of a team compiling primary research on a relatively new technique known as motivational inspiration to see how it could be applied to help people living with AIDS.

“The coping strategies are out there, but if there is no one to convey them to you and no one to show you how to implement them, there's basically no hope,” he said.

The pandemic has been hard for the self-proclaimed extrovert, but he has learned to go with the flow.

“Sitting at home all day, you have those bursts of motivations, like 'Oh, yes, I'm going to conquer the world, I'm going to do this, I'm going to do that, and then five minutes later, you see the TV remote over there and you're like the TV remote looks really nice, the couch looks nice.'”

He says he occasionally gets down about it all, but ultimately concludes that with all the free time, he can make a difference.

"Why can't we start to make changes in the world? Whether I’m young or old, it doesn't matter. I can do what I can with my ability. What's there to lose?"

Alastair Sharp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, National Observer