Director of Community Engagement, Deanna Duxbury
Roberto Gerrard-Martinez is exceptionally busy. From art auctions to lube packing to one-on-one care, it’s a miracle he had any time available for a coffee date at Starbucks.
His passion revolves around providing support to those affected by HIV/AIDS through AIDS Community Care Montreal.
Recently graduated from McGill, he sat down with me to chat about his schedule, the amazing events coming up soon and his full-time position with ACCM.
Deanna: Hi, thanks for coming! I feel like we’ve been trying to get together for so long. Did you want a coffee or something?
Roberto: Hi! No, thank you. I save coffee for finals.
D: *sips coffee* Good point. I’m all set up here- mind if I jump into some questions about your work?
R: No problem at all.
D: How did this all start for you? How did you get involved with AIDS Community Care Montreal (ACCM)?
R: I started as a volunteer and actually found out about ACCM through a McGill class. It’s with Bill Ryan- Social Work with LGBT Individuals. Because I’m taking a minor in Management (and am in Arts) you can take a certain number of electives outside of your faculty.
So, I took this social work class and pretty much, on the first day, told him I want to start volunteering more. I went up and asked if he could give me some ideas of places and ACCM was one of those places.
I initially started as a Buddy-Support Person, which is essentially one on one support. It can be anything from emotional support to helping people run errands.
D: What do you mean by “run errands”?
R: If someone is low mobility I help him or her do things like go get a hair cut. Actually, I even helped someone write a business plan.
R: Yeah, it can be anything. It’s basically member driven. (Note: When I say “member” it means HIV Positive and is a member at ACCM – they’ve applied to be a member).
D: If it doesn’t cost anything to be a member (which is wonderful), how is ACCM funded?
R: A large part of the funding is from the government. We apply for grants and donors are a huge part.
D: What inspired you to be a part of ACCM among your other options? What made ACCM stand out, as an organization?
R: It was my first time volunteering. I distinctly remember the Holiday Party when I first joined. It was was great, it was our biggest event!
The Holiday party is for the members. Last year (my first year volunteering) we had just over a hundred members come out!
It consisted of a holiday dinner, performances some of the staff put on and we usually have donated gifts that we give out to every single member that comes.
D: That’s so sweet! It’s a great way to get into the holidays.
R: I agree. With sponsorships and stuff like that, I find, most companies are pretty generous around the holidays.
D: That’s good to hear. For me, the holiday season is unending. I still have my Christmas tree up and I’m not taking it down anytime soon (note: that may be because I have no storage).
R: Exactly! As long as it’s still snowing it’s like the holidays! The Holiday Party in particular, with the staff and members, was so warm and welcoming- it’s really a community.
I mean it’s a community-based organization surrounding the members so you get a good sense of the community feel.
D: So how is ACCM organized internally?
R: There is a breakdown of the board, overseeing governance, and then there is the staff. Staff are more logistical and ‘on the ground’ running programs. I’m on staff and get into more of the nitty-gritty details.
D: In terms of these programs, I saw you had an Art Show planned?
R: Artsida! It happens usually around March every year. This is our seventh one coming up, March 12th. I’m helping work on it. It’s a charity art auction. This year it’s held at the Montreal Contemporary Art Museum (the MAC) and we collect donations from all artists from well established to up-and-coming. Usually 300 people attend and it’s anywhere from beginner to advanced art collectors, business executives, politicians etc.
D: Do the members participate?
R: The members can- it’s not limited at all. Anyone can come and enjoy Artsida.
D: What other notable programs/events/services do you offer through ACCM?
R: We have education for prevention, one-on-one support services, treatment programs and then we have food programs.
I started with the food programs.
Buyers Club (a grocery cooperative) lets members buy in for a small amount and receive food security.
We also have Dinner and Discussion. It takes place every Monday from 6pm-9pm and, essentially, it’s a workshop accompanied by a meal. Every week the workshop changes and, again, it is member based.
The last food program is My Pantry. It offers non-perishables to members on a need basis that they can take any time.
D: That’s a lot of different branches!
R: We actually do have a lot of programs now. Currently, we have 49 active programs and projects.
D: In what ways is ACCM involved with university campuses?
R: We work a lot with Concordia actually. Concordia is our biggest university partnership, along with a lot of the CGEPs. I don’t do that work directly but our education prevention programs are very big there.
Fun fact: the condoms you get during Frosh are usually provided by ACCM.
D: Very smart.
R: Haha, yes. Safe sex is important.
D: Well, thank you. It is appreciated work.
R: Right now actually, with McGill, we are working with the gay fraternity Delta Lambda Phi. They’re helping us pack lube tonight.
D: I’m so curious, please elaborate.
R: We don’t just do condom packing; we do lube packing as well.
We’re running a lube survey program. Basically, there’s a medical lubricant that is the standard for free lube but we’re pushing to change it because it isn’t great quality.
Obviously condoms are a huge push for reducing the transmission of STI’s, but lube is also really important because it reduces tearing and therefore reduces your chance of contracting an STI.
We also work with Concordia’s Food Coalition. They invited us to speak at “Bite Me”, their week of Food Discussion.
D: That’s really diverse- great presence on the college campuses!
R: Also, (one more program) we have a text-based sexual health help line called SextEd.
D: That sounds great- really useful for freshmen or any shy student really.
R: Yeah, because not many people will feel comfortable asking someone in person so it’s based on being anonymous.
You get a response within 24 hours and it’s a medical, fully researched answer. People may not know this, but in the condom packs we give out during Frosh there is a card for the SextEd program.
We also do a Sex Ed trivia night. We had one at Gerts last year and there is probably one coming up within the next few months!
(Note: The SextEd Trivia Night is happening Wednesday February 8th. Find out more details here)
D: I think that would be insane fun.
R: We had over 60 people come out last time, I believe. And we had prizes! We were giving out lube and, well…other sorts of things of course.
I feel like we’ve digressed.
D: This is great- conversational, if you will. I am very interested in coming out for a trivia night now.
In general, I think it’s great to get out there and have these open conversations.
Even today, when I was discussing the interview with a few friends of mine on campus, I noticed that I received some curious looks from some people around me. Words like “HIV” and “AIDS” tend to get a repulsive and unwelcome response in passing, which is unfortunate. Breaking this kind of stigma is important.
R: Exactly. ACCM really does focus on that as well.
D: What’s your personal draw to this organization in particular? What makes it different?
R: Personally, I find that most ASOs (AIDS Service Organizations) are slanted towards people that are HIV negative- preventative education and the like. Contrariwise, a lot of the services found at ACCM are tailored towards people who are living with HIV or are affected by HIV. We provide a lot of support and I think that kind of work falls through the cracks. A lot of people think, “Oh, you’re living with HIV” as if that’s the stopping point.
The number one thing people think about when they think about AIDS is research for the cure. Obviously that also affects everyone but I like how ACCM engages with the day-to-day life of people living with HIV. There’s medication costs, health burdens, and really, food security is huge.
(Note: Learn more about the ACCM mission here).
Many people living with HIV live with the stigmatization. Unfortunately, people are still discriminated against in the hiring practices and other kinds of things.
D: Even in the hiring practices? How would that information be released to an employer?
R: If they’re outed. It’s just one of those things- there’s been cases of people being outed at their workplace.
D: That’s so awful.
R: I can’t give you specific anecdotes of that happening but it’s very real. Some people that are diagnosed with HIV tell people that are close to them and a lot of people don’t understand what being HIV positive necessarily means. Some people just automatically shut down and think, “Oh, we can’t be friends anymore”.
It’s actually alarming. I know some people that work in our education programs and they find that a lot of kids still believe they can get HIV through skin-to-skin contact.
D: It’s crazy that education on this topic can be so sparse in society.
R: This is why education is a huge component. Stigma reduction is an enormous issue.
(Note: You can find more information on HIV and AIDS here. You can find more information on transmission, viral load and being undetectable here.)
I actually wrote a paper on Grindr in a Communications class at McGill regarding these subjects. It’s with Jonathan Sterne, called Communications and Disability.
D: I assume that, being a part of the ACCM, you wouldn’t be able to share anything anecdotal due to confidentiality.
R: I mean, I have stories but it’s also a very private issue. We do have members that are very open and share their experiences but it’s a bit of a tricky question.
D: What is the one thing you’d advise students- if you only had one tagline or tidbit to give?
R: Not in relation to ACCM, but more focused on how I got there: GET OUT OF THE MCGILL BUBBLE! Start volunteering with organizations around Montreal. It expands your whole view of the city.
Personally, I started doing a bunch of stuff on campus first year (like AUS council and Model UN etc.) and as I progressed through my McGill career I moved into doing more and more stuff off campus.
I just became really involved in ACCM. Basically, I went to school only for class. In my final semester, it was 9 hours of class Monday and 3 hours of class Tuesday.
D: That’s pure madness. I don’t even know how you managed to organize that.
How did you make time to volunteer/work as well as complete school?
R: I never worked during the school year, except for ACCM. The only reason I did it is because I loved the job.
Honestly, I work better under pressure. I’m much more organized when I have more things to do. The semesters where I’m not busy, I find, I’m much more scattered.
D: Totally the same way. I’m doing a lot of clubs and projects this semester and it’s driving me insane but in the best way.
R: As long as you love what you’re doing!
D: I’m having so much fun! Personally, with my arts degree, if I don’t love my major at this point I’m just losing money all over the place.
R: Haha, I see what you mean.
D: Anyhow, I was just curious about any positive changes or influences you’ve noticed in your time with ACCM so far?
R: Around the time when I first joined they had a large changeover. Now, ACCM is a lot more cohesive. Everyone works together better and it’s very much like a family. It’s bled into the whole organization- you can feel the difference and the connectivity.
ACCM was actually the easiest and most organized place I found for my volunteering. They have a wonderful volunteer coordinator and she’s on the ball about everything. She got back to me right away and I started within the next couple of weeks.
From volunteers to staff- everyone really comes together. I mean, the staff have hours but there’s also so many events and everyone does want to volunteer. It’s that kind of organization.
Proceeds from the P[h]assion Show 2017 will be donated to ACCM to help continue their inspired support for all those affected by HIV/AIDS.
Find more information to get involved with this initiative directly here.