When you arrive at an International AIDS Conference (IAC) or International AIDS Society Conference (IAS), there is always someone to greet you, swipe your badge, provide you with directions, hand you your delegate bag, and generally be your go-to resource at the conference. These people are the ones who volunteer their time to ensure the success of each conference.
This year, as we gear up to open the call for volunteers for the 21st International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2016) on 1 April, we are sharing some of the voices of those individuals who have supported the conferences in the past. This is the first in a series of volunteer voices, spotlighting first-hand accounts from volunteers. Meet Dominique Bals…
My best friend contracted HIV in 1997. New HIV medication had just been developed, and he was lucky and survived. That experience influenced my life and I decided to learn what I could about the disease. Knowledge was the key for me to support him as best as I could. I learned more about people’s fears, stigma, hate, and a lot about hope.
Still it took me 13 years to finally get involved in the bigger picture. I wanted to do something. I wanted to learn more and help more.
I began my work as a volunteer with the 18th International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2010) in Vienna. It was my first conference as a volunteer, and I was quite nervous and excited at the same time. As an actor and singer, I always had the feeling that my possibilities to get involved were limited. That’s when I learned about these conferences and the volunteer programme. I was an amateur and was about to get involved in the fight against HIV and AIDS on a sort of professional level.
It is a small step for someone with experience, but it was a big one for me. I applied to volunteer and was accepted, and I was very quickly promoted as a volunteer supervisor after my first day at the conference. I am told it was because of my talent to entertain, while also being quite organized. (I still choose to believe that it had nothing to do with me being German.)
Supervisor at the Positive Lounge. I was excited! Until I realized, that it meant keeping the tables clean and the coffee machines working. That’s it? That’s what I had to do? That was my big contribution to the fight against HIV and AIDS? I felt a little lousy after the first two days. I tried to keep my spirits up and decided to make the most out of the situation.
I focused on the people around me - their behavior, their mood, and their stories. I started to learn how difficult life can be and how hard it is for so many people living with HIV and people fighting nearly hopeless fights against governments, countries, and families. They are fighting not to lose their dignity, their hope, and the support of others.
We had so much fun together while they were telling me their stories- suddenly singing together, sometimes crying together, and mostly laughing together. I was interested in the people who were attending the conference and those who were working at the conference. And that made the difference. I found friends who stayed with me during the conference and friends who have stayed with me even today.
I learned how much it is worth to create a positive and supportive environment for people living with HIV and AIDS. An environment where they we can be fearless, more open, and more relaxed. I learned how great it can be to keep coffee machines working, so you can sit together while having a hot coffee and listen to their stories.
Since that first conference I have become part of the bigger picture and part of the IAS/AIDS “family". I have even attended every conference that followed.
I am looking forward to volunteering at AIDS 2016 in Durban and invite you all to join me for this great opportunity. This conference will be an historic moment and a chance to meet and be inspired by people from all different backgrounds - the volunteers, the delegates, the organizers, and the locals in Durban.
The volunteer work we do is so important to making this a positive experience for everyone. If your work is to check badges, to stand in hallways, to keep coffee machines going, you will have the chance to meet great people, make a difference in their lives, and in turn might change your life forever.