Reaching out

Just as the Education Program began focusing on how to reach out and spread its prevention messages to people in ‘hard to reach’ groups, from the late 1980s the Support Program also made similar expansion a major priority. Regionalisation was a large part of this, as the VAC/GMHC began to expand its services into regional centres across the state. A branch was established in the Barwon region in 1989, followed by Ballarat, Gippsland and Bendigo.94 The Barwon branch encountered significant challenges due to the very different context of working in the areas of HIV/AIDS and gay men’s health in regional towns, where members faced ‘conservatism, prejudice and the lack of a strong gay community’. However, members recognised these challenges and determined to evolve not directly according to the ‘Melbourne model’ but ‘to serve its local community in a way which is consistent with the local community itself’.95

The original vision of the Support Program had been that the gay community would run the service completely independently. However, with infection rates rising and more and more people becoming ill and requiring increasing support, it became clear that partnering with other services would be crucial to the program’s ability to continue to provide high quality support to those in need. From 1988 those involved in the Support Program, led by Support Services Officer Robyn Callaghan, focused their efforts on partnering with other healthcare organisations. A joint pilot project with the Royal District Nursing Service (RDNS), funded by the Victorian government, proved a great success, formalising and strengthening the ties between the two organisations. Denise Brown was an HIV Clinical Nurse Consultant with the RDNS in the 1990s and recalls working closely with the VAC/GMHC Support Program:

I still speak about this time as being a ‘way of life’ rather than just a job as you gave so much of yourself and your time to help support people who wanted to stay at home – especially those who wanted to die at home in their own environment, at a time when HIV was still ‘scary’ and talk of euthanasia was not uncommon… Without the close relationships that were developed between RDNS and the VAC Support Program, I know many clients would not have been able to stay at home when it was so important to them. We supported and educated volunteers, family, carers and friends and relied on the volunteers to fill in the gaps that the nurses could not provide.96

Connections were also made with the Haemophilia Society of Victoria and the Churches AIDS Pastoral Care Program to establish a joint effort on education, recruitment of volunteers, training and support. Positive Women Victoria became part of the VAC/GMHC structure for a short time in the early 1990s. The group was originally founded by Bev Greet and Deborah Gillies in 1988 to provide support to HIV positive women, for whom there was little other assistance at the time. In a society that largely associated HIV/AIDS with gay men, positive women were a minority and, in the eyes of the wider community, often invisible.97 Positive Women was funded by the Commonwealth Department of Health, Housing and Community Services under the auspices of the VAC/GMHC from April 1991 to June 1992 to develop a resource package for women with HIV/AIDS and those working with them. This project produced a video and a book about women’s experiences of living with HIV/AIDS, including interviews and up-to-date information. Two thousand copies were distributed to AIDS Councils and support organisations across the country.98 Soon after, Positive Women decided to become an incorporated organisation. Bev Greet explained the concern that their issues might have been lost as part of the larger organisation: ‘We felt that our needs would be better heard as an independent organisation … It was thought that Positive Women needed to have its own voice and independence’.99 Positive Women went from strength to strength, spreading the message that HIV can affect anyone.


Bev Greet

Deborah Gillies

Bev Greet (top) and Deborah Gillies (bottom) founded Positive Women in 1988 to provide support to HIV positive women, for whom there was little other assistance at the time.

Positive Women

Positive Women and supporters, early 1990s

Positive Women and supporters, early 1990s. From left: Gina Perry, Susan Paxton, Marianne Peisl, Vikki Sinnott, Judith Jones, Deborah Gillies and Bev Greet.

Positive Women