Edwina Dewart is the manager of the Dublin City South Volunteer Centre and has volunteered with ACET since 2009.
The first time I heard of ACET was about 10 years ago when I was doing an MA in Globalisation. I was particularly interested in development issues and was researching charities that might have some suitable volunteer openings. For some reason I could never remember what the “C” stood for when I asked anyone if they had heard of ACET. When asked I would reply, “I think it’s AIDS Counselling Education & Training or AIDS Christian or Care or something like that.” Of course it’s AIDS Care Education & Training, but to me it encompasses the other ‘C’s’ as well.
I ended up volunteering somewhere else and the following year went to Ethiopia to serve alongside different types of development programmes. After a number of months, I started working with a couple of refugee camps and heard about someone who taught HIV care and prevention using an ACET International curriculum. I had hoped to work alongside this team and learn the curriculum so as to use it in the camps but unfortunately it never worked out.
Fast forward a few years and I’m back living and working in Dublin in a volunteer centre. One of the great advantages of such a job is that you get to see all the new volunteer roles that come in and get a chance to meet the people in the organisations who make it happen! I was also looking for new ways in which I could donate my time to something I believed in. After noticing a volunteer role on our database for an Adult Care Worker with ACET I decided to find out more.
I completed the application process and went to one of the volunteer trainings. At the training a number of things struck me about the staff and work of ACET and if I had to summarise it in three words it would be: passion, commitment and knowledge. As staff informed us about the type of work they do and the clients they’ve worked with over 20 years, it was hard to think of many other organisations that have walked so long with the clients they serve. Programmes are often defined by one, three or five year funding cycles, but here you observe journeys spanning different generations.
The topics of HIV, drugs and sexual health are generally not dinner-party conversation, let alone in polite conversation in the church. Yet listening to the staff from ACET and recognising their knowledge, you observe how they break these taboos and present a credible third alternative that transcends the extremes.
About six months or so after the volunteer training I got a call to say that there might be a suitable match with a client and was I available to meet her the next day. I think it is useful to know if you are considering volunteering with ACET that it may take a while to be matched with someone and to think about whether you can wait that long.
When I walked up the steps of the flat complex to meet with the woman with whom I had been matched for the first time I think it is fair to say I felt nervous. After we met I think it would also be fair to say I felt out of my depth! I had seen many HIV programmes in Ethiopia and supported a couple of people with HIV, but this was a totally different experience.
Many times I felt I had nothing to offer – I didn’t even know what the various clinics we attended even did and had no medical knowledge of treatments for HIV and its secondary diseases. I also knew nothing about
drugs or drug addiction and didn’t even understand half of the slang terms that came up in conversation! Working in the community sector I felt I knew Dublin pretty well, but this was a different Dublin to what I had known. Initially as I sat and listened I felt there is nothing I can offer as she probably has more life experience in her little finger than I will ever know.
Yet as time goes on you get to know someone better and they you. There is continued chaos and drama but also humour, resilience and flashes of grace. You can also read and educate yourself more about drugs or HIV.
Overall, when I think of ACET I sometimes wonder why more people haven’t heard of them particularly in the church. Perhaps it is because they don’t promote themselves like other organisations or because the work they do is messy and on the fringes of society. Yet when I reflect on being a volunteer with ACET and what we actually do, I think it is about giving people the room to tell their stories as it happens and walking with them in their particular circumstances as life enfolds. However, it is not just about passively listening but also pausing for clarification, gently challenging and encouraging – just being a friend really.