Making HIV relevant

Unfortunately, advancement in treatments for people living with HIV/AIDS meant that the disease became much less visible. Jon Willis, who replaced Darren Russell as President of the VAC/GMHC in 2003, encapsulated the growing apathy about HIV/AIDS, both in the wider community and in the VAC/GMHC itself:

In 1985, HIV was very real to most of us: we were scared of catching it, our friends had it, and we were going to funerals for people who had died from it … Men dressed as nuns handed us condoms at bars, and three-monthly sexual health check-ups were a normal part of life. If there was a public meeting about it, or a march through to streets to protest government inaction, we went. These days, most of us are a little distant from the daily reality of AIDS unless we are HIV positive, and the political battles over it are being fought far from the centre of our communities … It just doesn’t seem like our battle anymore.54

The needs of PLWHAs were changing, but they were just as critical. Less people were dying, but more were struggling with mental illness, social isolation and poverty. This put pressure on all VAC/GMHC programs providing support services. Willis called on the VAC/GMHC community to get involved in whatever way they could, from getting regular sexual health checks to becoming a volunteer or taking an interest in political debates around HIV/AIDS: ‘Make HIV relevant in your life and demand that your voice be heard’.55

Volunteers remained central to all activities of the VAC/GMHC and were a crucial aspect to the organisation’s ability to respond to new challenges in the epidemic. However, volunteer numbers were a continuing concern. Mary Gianevsky was employed as Volunteer Recruitment Coordinator in 1999, and made marketing and promoting VAC/GMHC programs to the wider community her major focus. The production of a new, colourful volunteer recruitment brochure, a recruitment video produced in cooperation with Qantas to be shown to over 3,000 Qantas staff, and increased advertising on radio and in various newspapers, were all part of a strategy to increase the visibility of the VAC/GMHC’s profile in the community and to promote the varied volunteer opportunities and benefits of volunteering with the VAC/GMHC. The two messages featured in advertising material – ‘The AIDs epidemic is not over’ and ‘Volunteers are urgently needed’ – Gianevsky reported, ‘were a very powerful and effective combination in relaying the reality of the situation to the community’.56

Although there was a significant increase in the numbers of people attending orientation sessions, this did not always translate into increasing numbers of volunteers. In 2007, the volunteer program was reviewed and strengthened, with particular attention paid to training and management procedures, volunteer support, and recognition of the contribution of volunteers.57 By 2009, it was clear that how people were volunteering at the VAC/GMHC was changing. Fiona Tunley, Manager of the Strategic Development and Allied Services Program, reported:

More volunteers are looking for a shorter term or one-off volunteer experience … more volunteers seem to be taking on multiple roles within the organisation, and being supervised by a different staff member in each role. We are also seeing an increase in internal recruitment for volunteer positions tailored to specific skill sets, with volunteers also working in new areas of the organisation.58

These changes had significant implications for both recruitment and management of volunteers, and led to the development of standardised procedures across all programs. Volunteers remained the backbone of the organisation, often recognised for their invaluable contribution. Involvement with the VAC/GMHC can be just as rewarding for volunteers themselves. For Kim Miles, a volunteer with the David Williams Fund:

It’s been a joy to meet the clients and staff and I have received far more than I have given. VAC/GMHC was given to me at the exact right time – it gave my life meaning and purpose when I needed it. The generosity, care, love and fun has filled my heart and enriched my life.59


Volunteers 1

Volunteer Philip Searle and staff member Tex McKenzie.

Volunteers 2

VAC/GMHC volunteers at a function to thank volunteers in 2012.

Volunteers 3

Volunteers were crucial to the organisation’s ability to respond to new challenges in the epidemic in the 2000s and remain central to VAC/GMHC activities.