Christine O’Connor is a primary school teacher and has been an ACET volunteer since 2001.
I remember a slogan advertising a credit card that would be “Your flexible friend”. Whatever my views are about bankers, changes in banking, cashless banks and the ongoing pressure to become a technical user of banking facilities, I feel this phrase sums up my experience of being a volunteer with ACET.
It was through a member of my church congregation that I first learned about ACET and felt challenged to do the training course over ten years ago. I was educated in my understanding of what HIV is and how it affects many men and women in our community.
I learned a little about the very real stigma which exists for many living with the virus. That initial training course opened my eyes and challenged me to do something if I could. I found that as the week’s training went on I looked forward to the sensitive, caring and informative talks and workshops – even cycling in to Gardiner Row on those cold November evenings did not deter me – a testimony to the skills of the ACET leaders facilitating the course.
Had my journey with ACET stopped there, I would still have been enriched by that week. Thankfully, though, I continued to the next stage of waiting to see where God wanted me to be as a volunteer. The ethos of ACET meant that it was important to wait until the client care supervisor saw the right match of skills with need – the “flexible friend” approach.
All things work together for good and my first link was made with a young boy needing some help with reading and spellings. As a teacher it was easy for me to assist and we met in the library where it was quiet and conducive to study away from the home.
Sometimes it was just a matter of encouraging this young lad to do his homework so that he would be prepared for the next school day and, as the weeks went on, I was privileged to get to know the family too and enjoyed wonderful, open hospitality. I listened as these young parents expressed their love for their children and how they hoped and prayed that they would avoid the pitfalls and hazards of life.
It was a rewarding experience to see those days when he was thrilled to show me an encouraging comment written on his copybook or to watch his enthusiasm (sometimes!) to begin his work.
Some days situations arose when homework was not a priority, when family members were too ill or troubled to cope. Being a volunteer with ACET means being flexible and accepting of changes in arrangements, often with no notice. After some time I no longer had a role in that situation as the young boy was going to the next educational stage.
What did I learn there? I learned that through all the turmoil of that family, parents wanted the best for their children – they themselves had struggled with addictions resulting in serious health difficulties but they strived to give the best opportunities to their children. ACET looks at each situation to see where and how they can use the resources they have in terms of volunteer skills and abilities with the needs of clients.
Once more the “flexible friend” approach led me to being involved in fund raising, delivering Christmas hampers, transport to children’s parties and participating in the Flora mini-marathon. Throughout the activities there was the ongoing support and chat over coffee with the client care co-ordinators who became good friends.
For the past seven years I have been visiting a wonderful lady to assist with transport to appointments, shopping or practical tasks. Our meetings vary and always involve chat over a coffee. It is an immense privilege and huge responsibility to share her life and be included in the joys and sorrows of her family.
In my journey with ACET I have seen the strength of the human spirit amid deep pain, the power of prayer, the humbling experience of being accepted as a friend and the prompting of God’s spirit to action. There is a hymn entitled The Servant Song which has a verse that expresses the essence of my volunteering experience:
We are pilgrims on a journey,
And companions on the road;
We are here to help each other
Walk the mile and bear the load.