A volunteering story by: Matthew Alex

HIV/AIDS Awareness Trainer.
I went through a rigorous training experience, with the American Red Cross, to become an HIV/AIDS Awareness Trainer. It took 8 weeks/ 5 nights a week/ 5 hours a night. This was 1990, in the state of Utah, and the general public was aware of HIV and AIDS, but very few knew the difference (HIV [Human Immunodeficiency Virus] is the virus infection that causes AIDS [Acquired Immunity Deficiency Syndrome]). The training, to be a trainer, was rigorous and heartbreaking. Heartbreaking because of how quickly people were going from a healthy state, to a very, very diseased state. It was only a matter of weeks or a few months. I was not up on human anatomy so I had to learn a lot of biological terms in a very short time period. After the exhaustive training program, we were given schedules to give HIV/AIDS training seminars at our own local American Red Cross about once a month. HIV infection was growing at that time. Not just among homosexuals, but there were infections among almost all aspects of our society. In the beginning it was called “The Gay Plague”, but, really, it wasn’t. It has grown to include straight men and straight women of all races. So, as American Red Cross HIV/AIDS trainers, our task was to educate the general public to the severity of the AIDS epidemic and attempt to personalize it in some way for them so it no longer seemed like the disease “someone else” got.

The Inspiration

In the Fall of 1977, I entered the University of Utah on a theater scholarship. In a combined Theater/Dance department of 600 students, I was one of a handful of straight men. I had grown up on a farm in rural Utah and this fact disturbed me…. until I got to know some of them. They were same as me in every way, but one. And as time went on, homosexuality seemed the “norm” rather than the exception. My faculty advisor was a gay, black man, who I came to deeply respect. In the spring of 1981, just about to graduate, some of my friends started getting “sick”. Before I knew it, some of them were dying! Then not just a few, but just about everyone I knew was getting sick!! From 1981 through 1984, I attended some 40 funerals of young 21, 22, 23 year old men and no one knew “Why?” I traveled the country throughout the 80’s doing regional theater and eventually ended up in Seattle and AIDS was full blown! So many actors were sick that it became a difficult line of work. I stopped going to auditions and got a ‘regular’ 8-5 job. I was working in health insurance and the company I was working for transferred me back to Utah. The acting and dancing community, that I had once been a part of, was decimated! Most of the people I had known were either dead or sick and it quickly became apparent to me that I should be doing something to help stop the spread of this disease. The answer was education. So, I became a HIV/AIDS awareness trainer for the American Red Cross.

The Aha! moment…

I learned to empathize with every different type of person and I stopped judging people based on their own personal choices. By the time I started volunteering, our country had started to realize there was no one to ‘blame’ for AIDS. We just had to educate ourselves to help stop the spread of this disease.
I had a friend in Seattle that I volunteered with that I will call “Dan” (Not his real name). In the early 1990’s, Seattle was known as “The Heroin Capital of the World”. Grunge Rock had become popular, with bands like Nirvana. The lead singer for the band was a self proclaimed heroin addict. It seemed to not only be ‘OK’ to be a heroin addict, but it became downright ‘cool’! “Dan” had fallen into the early rage of late 1980’s and early 1990’s heroin use in Seattle. He got strung out. He used to always say, “That’s the part they don’t tell you about when you first start using. They don’t tell you that eventually the drug will tell you when to wake up and when to go to sleep. Who your friends are and where you can and cannot go. It even begins to tell you to do things, like ‘steal’, that you would NEVER do if not under the control of that drug. “Dan” remembers the day clearly, the day he shared a needle with “Spencer” (Not his real name). It was common among heroin users to share their “works” (Needles and spoons) with other users when they didn’t have their own. But 2 months later “Spencer” died from AIDS and “Dan” ran to the Free Clinic to be tested. He was ‘negative’. He stopped using heroin that day and vowed to spread the word of the pitfalls of heroin use, especially HIV/AIDS.

To summarize it in three words…

  • Compassion, Empathy, Conviction

Why should you do this

Absolutely! EVERYONE should volunteer during some part of their life and volunteer to help a cause they feel very passionate about. Volunteering stretches you as a person. You are exposed to types of people you would never be exposed to without that volunteer experience. It teaches you empathy, which, I think, is one of the most noble traits a person can strive for.

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