Leaving the highly structured confines of prison after a 25 year stretch presented many challenges for me. The process of decompression is arduous. Ones' brain becomes exhausted by the fast pace of life 'street-side' and the stimuli that comes hurling at you. Unwinding, readjusting, focusing forward and a emphasis on self-care convinced me to pursue volunteerism. Living with HIV and HEP C, it seemed both practical and wise to explore volunteer opportunities at AVI. My initial memory of AVI was an elevator ride akin to 'running in molasses'. I arrived on the 3rd floor with a jolt, and stepped out into the bright, welcoming reception area where I was warmly greeted by a volunteer and two dachshunds. Moments later, I was seated in the Volunteer Coordinator's office and after the usual preliminaries, I felt free enough to provide the essentials of who I was, where I came from, and why I was here. Further, I was briefed on AVI's Mission, Vision, signed a confidentiality agreement, and, further instructed to what tasks I would be undertaking. I had become a registered volunteer.
I left AVI that afternoon, this time by the stairs, and exited to the street, I lit a cigarette, looked around at the folks milling around the front entrance of AVI, and decided that day to walk home. The volunteer coordinator had giving me a lot to think about.
Many people talk about stigma, invisibility, intolerance, and the uphill struggle to find acceptance, respect, and true support within the world. For those within the LGBTQ community. and many, many others who live with HIV, Hep C. addiction(s), homelessness, violence, to say nothing of those who have have made some horrific mistakes, and have been found guilty and imprisoned, the opportunity to give something back to the community, at least for me, was both redemptive and restorative. As I walked back to my residence that December afternoon, I held on tightly, gently to the knowledge that perhaps, just maybe I had found something that would provide meaning and purpose as I entered this season of my life.
The next day, and the days following, I attended AVI, and began assembling sex packs, pipe kits, 3-packs, 10-packs, and a few other duties. As I sat in the volunteer space, I began to take in the art, quilts, the pictures on the pictures on the walls and the information and supplies that were so accessible, and abundantly available. While incarcerated, this is what I had striven for. The establishment had taken so long to develop a response to HIV and Hep C. Overdose deaths were rampant. It had taken a prolonged battle to gain access to condoms, and lubricants; safe tattooing and an needle exchange remains a dream.
AVI was serving people who lived with HIV and Hep C., were working to prevent the spread of these diseases; were actively supporting clients, and daily were in the trenches to reduce stigma, discrimination, poverty, and despair. I wanted to be a part of that movement.
After a few weeks, the volunteer coordinator suggested that I volunteer at reception. Now I was out of my comfort zone and the enclosed volunteer space; answering the phone, chatting with clients, and becoming familiar with the 'heartbeat' of AVI. Later on, I volunteered with Street School, and even washed dishes for the clients in the Positive Wellness Program. I was particularly captivated by the stories of the clients who regularly accessed services; the sincerity and trust that these folk place in all staff and volunteers at AVI has not only softened some of the callouses on my own heart, but has begun a healing on a psyche wounded by years and years of adversity.
Shortly thereafter, I was offered a job as a Harm Reduction Worker, and later, a Peer Navigator. Indeed, perhaps some of the most challenging work I have ever undertaken.
One lasting and most poignant reminder of AVI's commitment to the folks they serve is that anytime a member of our community falls on the battlefield of illness or addiction, AVI staff turn on a memorial lamp which is inscribed the words: "Gone, But Fondly Remembered". To me, this speaks to more than mere vision and mission; this speaks to an abiding care and respect for the community and the folks they serve.
Happy 30th Anniversary AVI.