Lori Ford

NORTHERN TERRITORY AIDS COUNCIL 1986–1989

    We were not well supported by the NT government initially, and it became like a 24-hour-a-day effort – people lived and breathed it. It was like nothing else existed in our lives for a time, it seemed, because we were just working so hard ... It was a fascinating time, when there was such a high need and to see people of all walks of life coming together to achieve the same outcome. It was just brilliant really.

    I first became involved in the AIDS Council around 1986. I had a work colleague by the name of Ian Lauchlan who suggested I come along for a while as they were really needing some help. We both worked in the welfare office in Casuarina at the time and he went on to become the CEO. Before Ian there was an acting CEO who was loaned to our organisation from the ACT by the name of John Westlund.

    I was a committee member and when Ian left they had decided they really needed an educator counsellor more than a CEO. So I applied for the first educator counsellor position and was successful. I was there until about the end of 1989.

    We were upstairs in Knuckey Street for a while. It was a tiny little office and we ran the needle exchange from there as well. In '89 we moved to Cavenagh Street in an arcade called the Home Craft Arcade. That was a time when there was a lot of discrimination and there was a lot of fear in the community with anyone who was associated with AIDS or gay people. Moving into the Home Craft Arcade was quite difficult due to discrimination. Other arcade tenants came in and threw their toilet keys at us, and said, "You can have these because we won't be using the toilets anymore!" They really were not happy to have us in the building. The shops felt it was going to affect their business. So it was quite a difficult time initially when we moved into the centre.

    The reason I became involved was because there was such a lot of discrimination and such a lot of fear, and there just was so much to do and there just wasn't enough people. The people who were involved with the AIDS Council were colleagues, they were friends – it was a whole group of people who'd come from all different walks of life to work on anything and to assist people living with AIDS to get support and any kind of government assistance.

    We were not well supported by the NT government initially, and it became like a 24-hour-a-day effort – people lived and breathed it. It was like nothing else existed in our lives for a time, because we were just working so hard. Everybody that was involved was some kind of volunteer, whether they were working on special projects, committee issues or short-term projects. We had a lot of transient people and a lot of volunteers who would assist the AIDS Council when they were in town, which was great.

    At that time, one of the key projects was establishing the needle exchange program. It was initially not really legal to set it up at that time, so Simon Nish, Ian and myself went to the police to try and get people onside to work with us, which was very successful. When I worked there I was employed as the Educator/Counsellor. We had an admin person who was on secondment from NT Health, Michael Breshnahan. Later we employed an admin worker, I think part-time, by the name of Niki Patmios, and she was a great help as well. We really did everything and anything that was needed to be done as we didn't have any funding for any kind of additional support.

    A lot of counselling was done over the phone, as people were very fearful of being seen near the AIDS Council. Even bumping into me somewhere in the street was a concern, because they felt that if they were seen with me then people would just put two and two together. 

    During that time there was the establishment of the Friends group, which was the support group for people living with HIV. For a time they used to meet at my house because they needed somewhere to meet where people weren't going to be associating them with other people who were know to have HIV. It was a very small group initially. It was a very difficult time with discrimination and it was a time people were also trying to find out "who might have AIDS, or who didn't have AIDS". I can remember one guy with HIV being in hospital who had a broken hip or a broken leg, so he couldn't move out of his bed. The cleaners wouldn't clean his room and meals were left outside on a tray, of which he couldn't access unless one of us physically went in and fed him. People just didn't really understand how they could get HIV. At that time, there was a car accident that someone was involved in, and the automotive people working for the insurance company didn't want to touch the car because they were frightened that they could catch it. That all sounds quite silly now, but in those days there was a lot of fear in the community.

    We did a lot of education even as committee members because there was just so much to do. Some of the education I was involved in was with schools and with the Defence Force. They held military exercises in Darwin- Kangaroo ’88 and Kangaroo ’89, and we ran Safe Sex workshops in these tents at the Defence Force, which was quite a novel thing at that time. We did run a lot of Safe Sex workshops in the community. We used to go to the nightclubs and hand out pamphlets advertising Safe Sex workshops, and ran them at least monthly. We did a lot of education in schools, education to nursing staff, the police, defence, welfare groups, youth groups – but it was all very much one-off and ad hoc. It was when people wanted it or allowed you to come in to run AIDS education. In those days we didn't have a lot of funding, and so we were reliant on volunteers to help out a lot. There was a lot of advocacy for people, and we also established a group for people that were friends or families of people living with HIV. It was very good for people to get together, because everybody was being so secretive at the time. I think the needle exchange was a major program that we took on, and it worked extremely well. We also worked a lot with Banyan House rehab service, and we had a lot of volunteers from Banyan House who were coming in as well.

    I didn't have a lot of meetings with the government myself. I do remember Neal Blewett visiting, and he was very supportive. I don't think that the NT Government were particularly supportive. Funding was a major factor but we had a lot of committee members who really worked tirelessly to negotiate and really get the government onside. Ant Smith was heavily involved, Jenny Norris, Terry McClafferty and Dino Hodge all having meetings and trying to get the government onside. It was a tough time in those days.

    It was also a remarkable time to be involved with a community that were all pulling together when there was such a high need, and to see people of all walks of life coming together to achieve the same outcome Stephen McGreevy was our vice president for a while and he was very supportive of staff in the Council. Mark Wilson and John Dunham were also heavily involved. Mark was part of the Darwin Gay Society, the president for a while. He was heavily involved and assisted with training. I think it was really good Sally Thomas agreed to be the Patron in that era. That did make a difference to our standing in the community.

    There weren't initially a lot of sex industry workers involved. I think that happened afterwards. It was initially mainly the gay community that were leading the way, but also a lot of heterosexual people because we couldn't get people on the committee and people were concerned about their jobs or how they would be perceived if they were involved.

    I'd have to say there were some very difficult times, because you had all these different sub groups who all had their own issues. But it's like any group: you've got groups within groups and everything was highly emotive. We did have some very strong discussions at different times, but overall the work that was achieved in those early days was just amazing, and people were all ultimately there for the same cause. There were times where factions felt that other sub-interest groups were taking over. That's probably just a normal kind of group norming, storming, forming of any group with such emotive issues

    Initially there was an AIDS Action Group in Alice Springs. In the early days there was someone who was doing education; it might have been Megan. There was obviously issues at some point between the two groups – there always is in the NT between Darwin and Central Australia – with any group about who's getting the most funding. It seems like there's a lot more factions when you start getting funding. When you haven't got any funding you're just all fighting for the same cause.