"My sons keep me grounded," María Paz Callejas says with a smile. "Whenever I feel like giving up, they snap me right out of it." Marípaz, as she is affectionately known, has felt like giving up a few times in her life. She was diagnosed with HIV in 1996, several months after her husband died of AIDS-related causes. Without proper counseling or anyone to turn to, Marípaz returned home with her test in hand. "I locked myself in my bedroom because I didn't want my children to see me crying."
Marípaz was born the youngest of 12 in the outskirts of San Agustín Usulután, a town in a southeastern region of El Salvador. According to statistics from the United Nations Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS, adult HIV prevalence is still relatively low (less than 1 percent) in this small but densely populated country of about 6.2 million. Nevertheless, approximately 35,000 people are estimated to live with HIV and many, like Marípaz, may not have received adequate counseling before and after taking an HIV test.
It wasn't until a friend referred her to a local nongovernmental organization, Fundasida, that Marípaz took another HIV test and finally received professional counseling. "I had so many questions," she says, "and I finally had someone to answer them." After several months of continued counseling, Marípaz joined a support group for people with HIV. She started two other groups for youth—both positive and negative—and for family and friends of people with HIV. She then went on to volunteer at the foundation's confidential hotline and prepared meals for people who came to receive treatment, care and other services.
In 2002, Marípaz received a phone call about a job opening at PASMO, PSI's Central American affiliate. "When I interviewed her, she didn't have a lot of experience in education," says Susan Padilla, PASMO's HIV manager. "But I saw a lot of potential in her, and I told her that she was completely capable of carrying out the work." A few days later, she was hired to do interpersonal activities with groups particularly vulnerable to HIV. At the end of the day, Marípaz says her family and children are what motivate her to keep going each day. Her three sons, none of whom tested positive for HIV, are healthy and in school.
Her eldest, José Luis, is studying psychology at the university level and says he would like to work at PASMO helping others. He has also given Marípaz the chance to be a grandmother, and she proudly shows the pictures of her granddaughter on her mobile phone. "I always wanted a little girl, and now I finally have that chance."