While the core MPOWER team is responsible for fulfilling many of the programme’s duties, from community outreach to rapid HIV tests, they couldn’t do it without the help of their volunteers. Three of the volunteers, Jon Weir, Ewerton Dias, and Jason Doyle, discussed their experiences so far, how they got involved, and why they do the work they do.
Ewerton first learned about the earlier sexual health programme called KnowNow. While at the time, he was unable to volunteer due to other commitments, he’s now very much a member of the MPOWER team, alongside Jon and Jason who were brought on following their work with Switchboard, a confidential gay helpline, they have been with MPOWER almost since the start.
“The idea was to directly address and tackle on a peer level, HIV attitudes, and provide accessible testing onsite while maintaining a judgement-free approach to conversations around HIV, sex within the community and testing in general,” Jason shared. “At the time there were only a handful of volunteers, so between us we managed all shifts while also finding our way to providing a service that was seen as necessary, and proving its worth in collected stats on users.”
While that’s all easier said than done, it helps by keeping in mind what motivated them in the first place. Ewerton explained, “For me, it was a chance to give something back to the LGBTQ+ community and also make some difference to the people around me. To be where I am now, so many people went before me to fight for our rights. I just want to leave a legacy also.”
Jon had previously campaigned for Yes Equality during the same-sex marriage referendum, and, as such, was eager to volunteer on new projects should they arise. “I was itching for something new within the community to commit to, so when Adam told us about MPOWER I knew it was going to be amazing, and a chance to make a real difference in a peer-led queer community project.”
Volunteers are taught a range of skills, including how to administer a rapid HIV test, but Jon said it was the emotional aspects rather the practical aspects which proved to be a bit more difficult to pick up.
“It was a huge step for many to come to test with us, even when we were operating in more relaxed settings, like bars and saunas. So, we roleplayed the conversations we would be having to ensure we were confident as testers with our own knowledge, and ways to support and signpost.”
Volunteers are taught about a variety of sexual health-related topics, as well as how to give out that information in a non-judgmental way. Jason described how the team helped his own abilities: “Working with other volunteers also taught me a lot, learning from my peers’ experiences, both professional and personal. I always committed to every testing experience to leave the user with slightly more knowledge as they were leaving, as to what they arrived with.”
Before the lockdown, Ewerton had been shadowing other volunteers, and expressed similar sentiments about how much can be gleaned from working alongside the rest of the team. “Unfortunately, I haven’t had the time to experience much, but from what I have experienced, the programme has so much trust within the community [and] I could see from different people how much they rely on the service and trust in us to help them.”
As Ewerton explained, the service has become critical for many, despite only existing for a short time. Although MPOWER is still fresh, Jon said it’s already been quite normalised. “The most surprising aspect to me though was just how quickly the service became a vital part of the community, and how our relaxed-approach testing in bars and community settings, rather than clinical surroundings, was embraced.”
“We wanted people to nip downstairs for a ten minute test in Pantibar on a Saturday afternoon and think nothing of returning back to the bar with their friends to carry on their evening,” he continued. “It was an unusual approach at the time, and one I expected to be resisted, but it was really the opposite.”
Working on the MPOWER programme has taught all three of them a lot, and for Jason it was surprising how most people just wanted another person to talk to. “The majority of people that we were testing wanted to be heard, wanted to be validated, wanted to be made to feel okay and wanted to feel accepted.”
Unfortunately, the pandemic has greatly impacted the work the MPOWER team can do - Ewerton, for example, was unable to finish some of his practical training. Jason worried about what the pandemic might mean for the community. “With Covid hampering options, the harsh reality is, many will go untested for the timebeing and the connection of a staple project within the community will be temporarily frayed.”
The change in testing has been a big one, and Jon explained that it means losing a bit of what makes them different compared to other STI testing services. “I’ve been with the project from the start, so I was very used to testing across all our community venues without the usual trappings of a clinical environment - it’s what made us unique,” he said. “Covid has changed that in that it has made it necessary for us to lose a little of the informal nature of the service.”
Their services continue to be incredibly important, but Covid-19 has prevented them from participating in emotional moments the same way as they would have in the past. “Many times over the years, an emotional service user has wanted to hug me or shake my hand at the end of the test - often because they had been expecting a particular outcome and I have told them the opposite,” Jon said.
“Those moments of connection were always so powerful and emotional for me too (and many other volunteers say the same) as it was always a reminder to never become blasé about what we are doing. We don’t think about how important those small moments of connection can be in the work we do until they are taken away from us, as Covid has done.”
That said, Jon is proud of how MPOWER’s work has been able to continue throughout the pandemic. And when things are all said and done, they’ll still need volunteers to keep doing that work. When asked what anyone looking to help out should keep in mind, Ewerton listed two important qualities: “In my opinion, the best advice would be for them to be themselves and to be committed. Especially with MPOWER, we are being part of someone’s very delicate moment.”
Meanwhile, Jon emphasised how critical it is to not let anxiety get in the way of volunteering if you want to do it. “Do not let fear put you off! Being part of MPOWER from the start, I can say that the fear quickly goes and I’ve never felt prouder to be part of something and part of such an amazing team of volunteers.”
On a final note, Jason added that volunteering also provides people with an opportunity to learn, not just about others, but also about themselves. “Volunteering has exposed me to people I would ordinarily not have the fortune of meeting. I would not have had the pleasure of being exposed to the true diversity of this community in its fullest and its many bright and beautiful characters.”
“I also don’t think I would have the attitude I have due to the connections made with non-like-minded individuals,” he continued. “So, if you want to broaden your horizons, expand your social circle, diversify your own thought process and appreciate the community even more, volunteering will provide this, and much, much, more.”