Helping other people is "something I can see myself doing for a lifetime.”
Before Hillary Aristotle journeyed from her home in Jakarta for her first year at Exeter, she forged a relationship with a group of children who have had a profound impact on her: She volunteered at Lentera Anak Pelangi (LAP), a nonprofit organization that aids children and pre-teens with HIV — many of whom are orphaned and living with aging caregivers who lack the resources and education to provide for their unique needs.
Invited to shadow LAP’s caseworkers, Aristotle was moved by the children she met during their home visits, but what she remembers the most was their spirit. Despite the fact that many were living in poverty and with the stigma of HIV, which is still quite strong in Indonesia, “They didn’t seem so deprived,” Aristotle says. “Most can’t tell they have HIV. They’re lively, they chatter, they’re just kids.”
During the school year, Aristotle found herself thinking of those kids. Three years later, she is still involved with LAP and has developed friendships with several HIV-positive children during her summers at home. Those relationships fostered a deeper understanding of the complex social issues that affect young people living with HIV — and a strong conviction that any effective treatment model must also ensure emotional and psychological support. “There is a disconnect between what the policies try to achieve and what we need,” she says.
Disease management has come a long way in the past 30 years. Faithful adherence to a treatment plan with antiretroviral medication can make the virus virtually undetectable in many cases. But while doing research with UNAIDS this past summer, Aristotle bumped up against a startling fact: “Even when antiretroviral treatment is provided free of charge [as it is in Jakarta], the kids don’t always take it.” That fact troubled her. Missed doses can lead to immunosuppression and resistance to the first- and second-line medications. “Those third-line medications are more expensive and harder to come by,” she says. “The results of not taking them can be tragic.”
Aristotle wanted to know more about what motivates teens and tweens living with HIV to make healthy or unhealthy decisions. She suspected poor decisions were sometimes caused by helplessness — “They’re living in poverty and many are orphans whose parents have died of AIDS. It might be hard to imagine a future” — or, by youthful hubris: “ ‘The virus is in me, but I feel fine. Why interrupt my day to take handfuls of chunky pills when I’d rather be out playing?’ ”
Haunted by a question that “had no right or wrong answer,” she began conducting interviews with HIV-positive children to find out what their experiences were like in the hopes that she might be able to help. This past summer, she filmed a documentary with the support of a local production company in Jakarta. Released in September on YouTube, Pills Aren’t Enough is her effort to combat the stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS and to raise awareness among the rest of the population.
At a special assembly last spring, Aristotle shared what she’d learned thus far about HIV and AIDS with her fellow Exonians. Urging her peers not to “immerse themselves in the Exeter bubble,” she exhorted them to go out in the world. The young humanitarian, who will graduate from Exeter in June, plans to take her own advice. While she isn’t sure where the future will take her, she feels certain it will involve helping other people: “It’s something I can see myself doing for a lifetime.”