Written by Carol N. Theodore
Though totally unrelated to any field in which I have expertise, AIDS 2012 was happening in my home town and presented a wonderful opportunity to learn while giving back. So, I willingly volunteered for 7 full days to assist in the Speakers’ Center. Buried in the bowels of D.C.’s Convention Center and staffed by outside contractors based in Germany (though technicians were also from Sweden and Canada), it was a place that every speaker had to come, prior to taking the podium, to get their presentation uploaded. Centralizing the process is a way to eliminate the risk of computer viruses.
My “job” was to greet the speakers as they entered, direct them to the registration desk to sign the necessary waivers, and then find a technician to assist. Catching the eye of an available technician was like getting a waiter’s attention in an over busy restaurant – it required all my diplomatic/teambuilding skills during the slack periods to ensure that I could make best use of a speaker’s time during the busy periods!
Some arrived with a retinue in tow, others nervous and alone. Speakers had been warned to come four hours before, and most did, but others rushed in frantically, moments before speaking, testing the graciousness of the fatigued technicians who nevertheless treated each speaker as a VIP!
Quickly I learned how tightly knit and interconnected the international AIDS community is. Often a speaker would look around the room while waiting for a technician and spot one or more old friends – embraces and chattering ensued. Irina Fleischer, head of the technical team, knew by sight many of the speakers from previous AIDS conferences at which she’d worked, and warmly greeted them. In the rare quiet moments we chatted about her years growing up in the Polar Circle of Russia, and about the relentless schedule of professionals today, whether in Germany or the United States. Our room became a respite center for speakers who came to sit for some quiet time over coffee, with a friend, removed from the bustle of the convention floor.
People truly came from all over the world to speak at the conference and appreciated the positive comments I was often able to make about their homeland. A life filled with travels around the world paid off in my ability to put people at ease. All spoke English well but nevertheless appreciated even a brief exchange in their native tongue. I knew none personally or by reputation, but those who did were often awestruck and reverent about their expertise in the field.
Whenever not required in the Speakers’ Center, I was free to wander in and out of the Global Village and whatever presentations happened to be on. These ranged from Sir Elton John expressing his gratitude for his current well-being to one Q&A session where a retired sex worker expressed thanks for her past as it qualified her for her current job as a social worker. I gained knowledge regarding current state-of-the-art treatments around the world for people who are HIV positive. I learned as well about major public health issues and their foreign policy implications, and much about alternative life styles, as well as significantly increasing my grip on geography!! This I did by talking with speakers and fellow volunteers (some of whom took vacation leave from their jobs and came from other countries just to volunteer), watching presentations and films, and reading some of the research reports that were available on publication tables around the convention.
Perhaps no single hour, however, was as informative and educational as the required training for volunteers conducted by Joy Lynn Alegarbes, director of Global Operations for the Condom Project. This ABC’s of condom use was conducted with unabashed enthusiasm, charm and grace, and never has there been a more appealing spokesperson for this cost-effective AIDS prevention program. She was visible onstage throughout the Conference, repeating demonstrations and encouraging taste testings, leading daily dance sessions, and overseeing the distribution of many thousands of free condoms and colorful t-shirts that all the delegates seemed to want to have. This 60 something volunteer, happily married for over 40 years, learned for the first time about the advantages and disadvantages of various construction materials and lubricants and what never to mix with what – useless knowledge? Maybe, until a neighbor or grandchild appears ignorant on the subject.
Long days of standing in a room with no windows could have been boring and exhausting, but the camaraderie and sense of community built up over a week made it fun. Would I do it again? …in a heartbeat!