, 17 April, 2020 / 1:45 AM
A HIV support and care organization named after a verse in the Gospel of Matthew is living up to its purpose of providing home to thousands of Persons Living with HIV and AIDS (PLWHAs) in Ghana under the auspices of the Catholic Diocese of Koforidua.
Established in 1999, Matthew 25 House, which derived its name from Matthew 25:45, “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brethren you do to me” has, for more than 20 years, provided a support system to persons infected with and affected by HIV and AIDS as well as given aid to Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVC).
While marking the 2020 Easter celebrations with beneficiaries of Matthew 25 House, Msgr. Alex Bobby Benson, founder and Director of the house noted that the number of people visiting the facility were on the rise during COVID-19, which has left many poor people without a source of income owing to the lockdown directives in the country to contain the spread of the disease.
“I always try to reach out to persons living with HIV and AIDs but to my surprise when I asked for the number, I heard there are over 4,000 cases in Agomanya, 3,000 in Akuse, 2,000 at St Joseph’s, Koforidua, all in the Eastern Region,” Msgr. Alex told ACI Africa correspondent in an interview on April 11.
He added, “I must say that I was shocked to get the figures and I am told HIV is on the rise but it appears nobody talks about it and now the topic is COVID-19 as you know.”
Msgr. Alex who has been providing shelter and medication for thousands of PLWHAs and their children called on philanthropists and organizations to come to their aid in these difficult times of the COVID-19 pandemic.
He explained that PLWHAs need to eat well to enable them take their antiretroviral drugs, saying that “in these times where people are being asked to stay home to prevent the spread of the disease, this vulnerable group must be supported.”
He called on the government of Ghana through the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection to find appropriate and convenient ways of providing support for PLWHAs in terms of feeding to ensure they do not default in taking their drugs.
According to the Ghana AIDS Commission, the west African country has a total 334,713 people living with HIV, made up of 117,199 males and 217,514 females. The Commission states that 55 percent of people living with the virus know their HIV status.
Beneficiaries of Matthew 25 House have expressed gratitude to the Ghanaian Cleric who they say has turned their lives around.
“Msgr. Alex has been of immense help to those of us living with HIV and we call the Matthew House our home,” 43-year-old Juliana Owusu told ACI Africa correspondent in a telephone conversation.
The single mother of two said she had found home at the facility, away from societal stigma that people living with HIV and AIDs in Ghana grapple with.
Her sentiments were echoed by Ebenezer Tei, 52, who testified that Msgr. Bobby’s project has been paying for her medication.
Another beneficiary, Evelyn Adonteng who has been attending Matthew 25 House for twelve years said the facility had sponsored one of her children through school.
“Coming to Matthew 25 for the past 12 years has been of immense help to me. Fr. Bobby has supported me in taking care of my first child through Senior High School,” said Ms. Adonteng.
She added, “I sometimes feel alone but when we meet at Matthew 25 every month, I feel happy because I see my family; they understand me and we encourage each other. At Matthew, I can talk freely without being stigmatized.”
The beneficiaries said that through the efforts of Msgr. Alex, Matthew 25 had become a formidable partner in the fight against HIV/AIDS by establishing the first HIV/AIDS care, Training and Hospice facility in the West African nation.
They praised Msgr. Alex for establishing the House to provide an adequate home for HIV and AIDS people who are terminally ill, indicating that the House embraces all people regardless of race, tribe, religious, or political affiliation.
According Msgr. Alex, most of the HIV patients supported at the House either rely on menial jobs or do nothing at all in a society where they are shunned.
“Most of the HIV patients that come here stay alone with their children. For them, coming here and mingling with each other every month is the only social life they know,” he said.
He added, “People need to be educated on the modes of transmission because if they know and understand the modes of transmission, the rate of stigmatization will be reduced if not eradicated completely.”
Msgr. Alex says that the idea of establishing Matthew 25 was conceived in 1996 when he was studying in the United States of America as a Student Chaplain, where two people living with HIV were brought to him and his colleagues in one of their classes.
“I was touched so much after they had spoken to us and I hugged them, sat and chatted with them. It was then that I realized that people living with HIV were also humans, who needed to be encouraged in diverse ways. Before this moment, I had said I will not get nearer them because I was afraid but my action broke the barrier,” Msgr. Alex said.
He said as part of his training in the United States, he visited sick persons including those with HIV at a Hospital ward and as usual out of fear, he just waved at one person who was infected but out of pain the sick person shouted “come closer to me.”
“I held his hand for over 30 minutes praying and listening to him and that experience changed my perception that ‘people with HIV and AIDS must be treated like any other sick person because the disease is not contagious.’”
“When I came back to Ghana in 1997, remembering the experience I had in USA, I decided to help in my small way to form a support base by opening a centre at the old Parish Hall of St. Anthony Catholic Church at Akwatia where I was then the Parish Priest and christened it Matthew Chapter 25 Project,” said Msgr. Alex.
The project, he said, started with nine HIV patients who met every Thursday at the Parish Hall and later increased to 20. Today, hundreds of PLWHAs visit the house every month.
During their monthly socialization, PLWHAs share their individual experience and challenges as well as give testimonies of their lives after which they share food and other pleasantries before they leave for their homes.
Activities at social meetings include worship, talks on nutrition, personal hygiene, and drug adherence, individual counseling, group interactions and entertainment.
The Ghanaian Cleric observed that from interactions among PLWHAs at the facility, the place has become their new home, a place of solace where they are respected, and encouraged to live with dignity.
Matthew 25 House strives to be self-sustaining and to decrease its dependency on donations by sewing of school uniforms, palm oil production, hearse services and funeral undertakings.
The beneficiaries at the house also make school uniforms and other stationery, which is sold to people who visit.
The facility caters for the transport of the patients who come from far and near and distributes food items to them to cater for them for the month.
The House, Msgr. Alex added, has also sponsored children from the vulnerable families through basic level to tertiary institutions including universities and colleges.
The Priest said that the project also organizes for meals on Christmas Day and on other key days, which is distributed in prisons and in hospitals across the country.
Pre-Valentines activities are also organized at the facility, which provide an awareness platform “to educate house helps and trade apprentices to raise awareness of the HIV and AIDS and the several modes of transmission and the need to stay clear of attracting the virus,” according to the Cleric.
The day before Valentines is also an opportunity for these people to get free counseling and medical services.
One of the facilities under construction at Matthew 25 House is a hospice, which will be the first ever in Ghana to provide a people suffering from terminal illnesses a conducive environment to die with dignity.