I've been around for quite a long time.
I started volunteering in 1994, six months after I was diagnosed, about the same time as going on disability with a falling CD4 count, an uncertain future and few options. Seventeen years later I’m still at it. I’ve actually tried to “retire” once or twice but it hasn’t worked out, and right now I’m probably busier than ever.
I sometimes think about why do people volunteer? You’ll hear a variety of explanations centred on themes which ultimately are about altruism, aka trying to make the world a better place. But I’m convinced that many people, and I confess to being one, do it for themselves, do it because it feels good. It makes them/me feel more worthy, more needed, more complete. So in a sense, if you accept my hypotheses, volunteerism, for some of us, is selfish. Which sounds kind of callous, except that putting ourselves first, actively promoting our OWN self-care first, is just as noble an endeavour, I’d argue, as seeing our emotional and physical health secondary to that of others we struggle to assist
If that sounds cynical, I suppose you could make the same argument about charitable donations. Is our motivation to help others or to make ourselves feel good? Whatever, everybody benefits.
So here’s the thing. After many years of both good and bad experiences I’ve rationalized that the volunteerism I choose to engage in – and I’m choosy nowadays - must feel good for me. It must be enjoyable, it must be drama free and it must NEVER stress me out. If any of those criteria are not met, I’ve learned to move on. It’s probably the best lesson I’ve ever learned.
The flip side of this is that everybody wins. Tasks that you enjoy doing wholeheartedly are done better than those you hate or resent doing. It’s that simple.
Let me give you some examples. I’ve served on a variety of boards, chaired one at the local level, sat on the executive of two at the provincial and federal levels. Did I enjoy them? Meh! Even though I have the right skill set – I have a governance/finance background after all - stress and drama can and do raise their ugly heads through no fault of your own. And stress and drama I don’t do well. Thankfully, I’ve developed a keen sense of when it’s time for me to move on.
If I look at the volunteer roles I’ve undertaken over the last seventeen years, you’d probably be surprised at the ones I’ve found to be most rewarding. High on the list would be my very first volunteer stint. I was behind the front desk at ACT (the AIDS Committee of Toronto) , a receptionist who loved what he did. It was so different from what I had been doing in my “real” career and it gave me great personal satisfaction to be able to interact with and help people living with HIV. In other words, it felt very, very good.
You’d have to fast forward fifteen years to find something that fulfilling. 2009 found me as an on-line spokesperson for Ontario’s HIVStigma.com HIV prevention campaign. (My colleague Brian Finch was also featured in the same campaign – it’s how we got to know each other). It really was an amazing experience - super-challenging, but really rewarding, an assignment which combined my passion for working with social media and an interest in HIV social justice issues. In simple terms, it felt really, really good.
Fast forward another couple of years and you find me on PositiveLite, working with the other bloggers to bring you what you see today. Again, it works for me because it’s a combination of things I like doing anyway. Brian Finch is 100% stress free to work with too.
Sometimes I feel like I’m doing my best work ever here. For instance I felt really good about the two humbling interviews I did with Paul Gallegos – the amazing poz activist from California who is @Pauly1999 on Twitter. (You can read those interviews here and here if you haven’t done so already. I’m as proud of them as I was proud of Paul for his advocacy work.)
Should I feel guilty that all the volunteer assignments I’ve mentioned here made me feel good? I don’t think so.
Last night I travelled to Peterborough, to PARN, the local AIDS Service Organization that I’ve been connected with - sometimes loosely, sometimes not - ever since my partner and I moved away from Toronto in 1996. I presented to new volunteers there, helping with their orientation training, and speaking about my experiences as a person living with HIV. It’s not nearly the first time I’ve done this – it’ been something I’ve done off and on for years – and again, it’s something I enjoy. Simply put, it makes me feel good. And that, I maintain is entirely what volunteerism can be all about. Is the experience diminished by those with that motive? I‘d like to think not.
If you volunteer in AIDS work, it’s very helpful, to think – to think hard – about what YOU want out of it. The best volunteer work is that which gives YOU the most satisfaction while being of most benefit to others. There is plenty of that kind of work out there, but to find it means having a clear set of objectives, not to mention a list of places you DON’T want to go. At least that’s my take on it.