Volunteers make it happen

12th World AIDS Conference
03 July 1998

"The energy and effort each individual person contributed kept the motivation levels high for the team as a whole. Everybody worked so hard, individuals went far beyond any expectations staying many extra hours just to help, and were always very happy to do despite the exhaustion as the week progressed."

-- Sheila O'Byrne, Volunteer

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND. 7 July, 1998. -- The 12th World AIDS Conference came to a close last Friday, 3 July. But far from being over is the spirit of altruism which pervaded the Conference Volunteer Programme.

The unexpectedly high turnout for the Conference contributed to its success in almost every aspect, from the Scientific Programme, the Community Programme, the Cultural Programme, Scholarship, the Medical Support, Transportation, Web Team and Reception. Found almost everywhere, Volunteers helped Delegates, Congrex and the 12th World AIDS Conference Staff: "Without their helpful information and their smiles, the Conference would never have been the success it was. Always keen to help, they worked very much as a team" lauds Viola Krebs, Co-ordinator of the 12th World AIDS Conference Volunteer Programme.
When the project was launched, some Genevans had the feeling that a Volunteer Programme of this size could never be realized in a city little known for its volunteer spirit. But while the initial target was to find 500 people keen to help, the final result was that more than 800 people volunteered for the Conference.

The organisation of the Volunteers was unanimously proclaimed a success by both Volunteers and Conference-goers alike. "Dinosaur" Delegates, or those who had attended many World AIDS Conferences in the past, said they had never seen Volunteers who were as friendly and always ready to help as in this Conference. Likewise, Volunteers left with the feeling they were useful and a little richer with the experiences and encounters they had lived with the Conference -- both with Delegates and with other Volunteers. Many Volunteers felt that they want to continue volunteering after the Conference.

Unlike this year's Conference, the Volunteers of the last International AIDS Conference held in Vancouver were assembled by a professional recruiting agency.

Many reasons, one cause
The Volunteers, who were not just the face of the Conference, but also of the city of Geneva and of Switzerland in general, came from many parts of the world. Ireland, Pakistan, India and Cameroon are just a handful of the nationalities represented by the Volunteer Staff.

The international background of the Volunteers was especially helpful for the Delegates, who typically came from afar. "When a lady from the US came up to me with three heavy bags --totally lost outside of the Arena and trying to find the registration desk --asked me where I came from, I told her I was Swiss. And she said, "Can I give you a hug? You're the first Swiss person I've met!" explains Krebs.

According to responses to questionnaires distributed by Viola Krebs and a small Volunteer staff who prepared the Conference's largest team months before the actual Conference began, Volunteers became involved for a wide range of reasons, from personal to professional. Many students got their first work experience. Some wanted to see what building one of the largest and most important events of the year in Geneva was like from the inside. Still other Volunteers had personal reasons related to experiences with HIV and AIDS.

"My daughter became HIV-positive" explained one of the earliest Volunteers to join the programme, who during the Conference worked at the Speaker's Centre helping Delegates with their slides.

Anita Widmer, responsible for other Volunteers' schedules explains: "I participated in order to share something profound. Maybe I was also particularly sensitized about HIV/AIDS, because I lost one of my cousins who died of AIDS. When I went to see the Quilt Ceremony, I had tears in my eyes."

Many out of one
Despite her central role, Krebs is quick to remind that she was not the only one responsible for the organisation. A familiar volunteer face among HIV/AIDS-related programmes in Geneva herself, the unassuming Genevoise typically was found working side by side with the unpaid staff of the Conference. She and a "whole army of great volunteers" worked since February on a regular basis, giving many hours of their time, working late at night and on weekends in order to put together a successful programme.

Krebs, who came to the Conference prepared with knowledge about the needs and sensitivities necessary to work with peoples who may come from very different backgrounds and who are facing serious life decisions explains that she was still affected very much by the Conference: "For me, the strongest moments were at the PWA lounge with some of the people who really needed medical treatment, some of the people who really represent what the slogan of this Conference is about. When we talk about North-South issues, there are people who are real examples of the fact that being from the South means not always having access to the miraculous treatments sold for so much money."

The one thing Krebs recommends for someone trying to do this in the future? "Believe in the project and go to the people and work with them, rather than expect people to come to you."

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