At GMHC, we love our volunteers! For Volunteer Appreciation Month, we’re sharing the incredible range of ways so many dedicated, caring people in our community use their time and talents to support our clients’ health and well-being.
It was volunteers who founded GMHC in 1982, galvanized by the urgent need to care for people growing sick and dying from the fast-growing epidemic. In the face of overwhelming HIV and AIDS stigma, it was up to GMHC and other grassroots HIV and AIDS service organizations to educate about the virus and advocate for our clients at a time when they’d been abandoned by the government and shunned by society.
“I volunteered my time and love to change brutal treatment and hateful minds towards loved ones and strangers dying at the hands of negligence and ignorance,” recalled one early volunteer, Maria Minichiello, in a recent Instagram post. “We did good … we opened minds, hearts AND wallets! We lost an entire community; we gained medical knowledge.”
Over 40 years later, there’s still no vaccine or cure, but HIV and AIDS are both preventable and treatable – and GMHC still relies on our incredible volunteers for help with everything from our core programs around food and HIV prevention to empowerment groups and a creative writing class.
AIDS Walk New York!
“People volunteer because they want to give back and support the community,” said Shelley Levine, GMHC’s Senior Director of Training and the Volunteer Center. “For some, it’s a community they’re a part of and for others, it’s a community that needs their support.”
“Sometimes volunteers have received services from GMHC and want to give back, because they also received that support,” she added.
AIDS Walk New York on Sunday, May 21 is GMHC’s most important fundraising event of the year–and we couldn’t do it without the over 400 volunteers it takes to set up, clean up, and guide Walkers along the four-mile route through Central Park.
About 10,000 people will unite in Central Park to remember those we’ve lost, show solidarity, and support of GMHC’s vital services for people living with or affected by HIV and AIDS.
Jennifer Kuzara has volunteered for AIDS Walk New York for over a decade, doing everything from helping with Walker sign-ins to crowd control. What keeps her coming back? “I had a medical issue a few years ago and was not myself,” she said, “so I understand how life gets turned upside down when something goes wrong with your health.”
GMHC still has volunteer opportunities on May 21 to serve as route marshals, help with crowd control and support the clean-up crew (aka the Green Team), Levine said. It takes 100 route marshals stationed along the course to guide Walkers and cheer them on, while keeping pedestrians and cyclists clear of the course. About 60 other volunteers help with crowd control to assist regular Central Park visitors and keep pedestrian traffic flowing along the course. And it takes 50 Green Team volunteers to keep the venue clean and beautiful. (Route marshals need to be 18 years old, while crowd control helpers and Green Teamers need to be 16 years old.)
All the shifts start at 7 a.m. before Walker sign-in opens at 8 a.m. The Walk itself kicks off at 10 a.m., after a quick Masala Bhangra dance warm-up at 9 a.m. and the Opening Ceremony at 9:15 a.m.
Body and Psyche
Effective HIV prevention and care encompasses both the body and the psyche. To prevent HIV and STIs, our volunteers – often groups from high schools or companies – bag up free condoms and lube to distribute across New York City. To help us feed people, they assemble nutritious meal bags for our Wednesday Grab n’ Go distributions to clients and the community or assist clients with our pantry distributions on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
People in the community bring their strength, courage, and wisdom as guest speakers for our empowerment groups for women, men, and transgender, gender non-conforming, and non-binary (TGNCNB) people. Other volunteers offer emotional support to clients living with HIV through our Buddy Program, or provide creative outlets, like Jhon Sanchez, a lawyer with a master’s degree in creative writing who’s been leading a weekly creative writing group for GMHC clients living with HIV since 2015.
The class fluctuates each semester from five to a dozen people, mostly older gay men. “People bring their stories and connect to the group’s community,” Sanchez said.
The group switched to Zoom during the pandemic, and those two hours on Thursday evenings became a lifeline for members, he said. “Many were retired people, so it gave them some structure and gave them a space to be productive and creative.”
“To find a voice and write something that is meaningful to you – that is the difficult part,” Sanchez added. Right now, the class is focused on sci-fi and speculative fiction, but HIV crops up. One week, the writing prompt was: What happens when there’s a cure for HIV and AIDS? “People connected with that,” he said.
Sanchez said his students have had their work published in literary magazines and online journals. “I’m very proud they’ve achieved that,” he said. “They are very good writers. I learn from them all the time. I see them grow, and how they change over the years.”