The business of relationships: The Ankali Project

The business of relationships: The Ankali Project

HIV Australia | Vol. 12 No. 1 | March 2014

By John William Jones

‘Being an Ankali volunteer is a journey full of surprises. There have been moments of intimacy and times of frustration and everything in between. My most important discovery was that just being there was not enough. I had to earn my client’s trust. This journey has enriched my life.’

– Ankali Project volunteer

For almost 30 years now, Ankali volunteers have been providing social and emotional support to people living with HIV/AIDS. Over the years, the nature of that support has changed in accordance with the changing needs of people living with HIV.

In today’s world of highly effective HIV treatment, relative wellness and the prospect of ending HIV transmission, the Ankali Project has evolved and continues to be relevant. The first Ankali volunteer training took place in May 1985.

Before the advent of effective treatments, volunteers were most often matched with clients that had been diagnosed with an AIDS defining illness, and who would possibly die in the very near future.

These days it is unlikely that volunteers will be matched with clients who may soon die, let alone from an AIDS defining illness.

I have been a social worker at Ankali since 2003 and the energy and motivation of our volunteers, and seeing the contributions they make to the lives of our clients, continues to sustain me.

I have noticed over the years that while the demographics of volunteers change, their motivations and intentions remain the same. When we ask volunteers what motivates them to join the project, they invariably say that they want to give back to the community.

Compared to ten years ago, there are fewer gay men who volunteer with the project and more of a cross section of the community, including women, younger and older people and those who don’t necessarily have an existing association with gay or HIV-positive communities.

First steps

A volunteer’s experience with the project starts with attending four days of training. Over time, the content of the training has changed to adapt to the changing needs of our clients.

Today, there is more of an emphasis on providing volunteers with information and skills on how to manage relationships with people living with mental health issues and people with alcohol and other drug problems, and how to deal with clients who experience the complications of chronic social isolation.

Volunteers need to develop skills in setting healthy and realistic boundaries, or relationship rules, with clients.

Upon completion of the training, volunteers commit to attending an hour-long peer support group each week, to give and receive support and supervision regarding the relationship they are having with their client.

The support groups are a good opportunity for the volunteer to discuss and debrief about their experiences and get support from fellow volunteers, group leaders and professional staff.

Support groups also serve the secondary function of providing a social outlet that helps connect an otherwise diverse group of people who happen to share similar values.

Ankali has very good volunteer retention; 25% of volunteers have been with the project for five years or more.

Structuring supportive relationships

The Ankali Project has approximately 150 clients and the same number of volunteers at any one time. Volunteers are matched to a client on a one-to-one basis and can provide up to five hours of support in any given week.

These days, most clients require around two-three hours of support. The work of volunteers is now largely social, but the nature of emotional support means that it is difficult to distinguish between the social and emotional.

The volunteers are trained to be able to provide a non-judgmental listening ear. An Ankali volunteer doesn’t judge or give advice, but rather, lets the client take charge of their own decisions.

The most common activities undertaken by volunteers and clients include social outings such as meetings in cafes, walks to the park, visits to art galleries or trips to the movies.

This is in stark contrast to the early days of hospital and hospice visits, conversations about life and death, and supporting someone through the dying process.

The policies of the project go some way to providing structure and support to the relationships that are set up. Clients and volunteers are expected to pay their own way for coffee, meals and activities.

This often restricts what activities are possible, but also encourages creativity in coming up with shared activities.

Money is not the only issue that can cause tension. Problems can arise if volunteers have plenty of free time and want to spend large amounts of this time with their client.

Likewise, the client may be insistent on paying for coffee and lunch. Both of these issues require management in order to sort out the expectations and intentions of both the individuals, and ensure the needs of the client remain paramount.

Clients of the project are assessed by Ankali’s professional staff and matched with volunteers based on their need for support.

Clients are given an opportunity to express their preferences for the gender, sexuality, age and personal qualities.

The matching process aims to provide the client and the volunteer with the best chance of being compatible with the other person.

The needs of the client are paramount. Six weeks after the initial match, a phone call is made to the client to assess how the relationship is going and whether they feel comfortable with the volunteer and that it is meeting their needs and expectations.

Following this, a formal face-to-face review is conducted every six months to ensure the relationship is still delivering what the client needs, and that both the client and volunteer are happy to continue.

In a perfect world, Ankali would not need to exist, but in a society that does not provide equal access or equitable resources and support to all, there is a need for the project.

As long as social isolation and stigma continue to be issues for people living with HIV there will continue to be a purpose for Ankali.

The fact that clients are still referring themselves to the project, or being referred by their other healthcare workers, is evidence of the project’s ongoing need.

And the fact that volunteers are still prepared to give their time and efforts to people who, because of their diagnosis with HIV and experiences of living with the virus, require extra support to manage their lives, ensures the project’s ongoing success. The work continues.

The Ankali Project is a division of The Albion Centre, within the South Eastern Sydney Local Health District. For further information about the project visit:

John William Jones is a Social Worker for The Ankali Project at The Albion Centre.

Roy and Judith’s story

Roy and Judith are an Ankali client and volunteer pairing introduced to each other by the project in August 2005.

They have continued to meet and chat regularly ever since. Their relationship is typical of many present day Ankali partnerships, where the client is relatively well, yet still values the relationship with their volunteer as unique.

As Roy explains: ‘I am able to confide in her if I am unwell, and it is different than talking to a friend. Judith, being my Ankali, is able to relate more and understand how I am travelling.’

Roy says that, like all relationships, their relationship hasn’t been without its challenges:

‘In the early days it was hard to get (Judith) to laugh, but that changed and we get on tops – she is very, very good!’

Although Roy and Judith get on well, they each prefer to maintain the boundaries of the relationship as an Ankali relationship.

Judith continues to get support through the weekly support group and Roy is reviewed routinely by one of the project’s social workers to ensure the relationship is as he wants it to be.

Judith reports that, ‘Roy is an interesting man and it is fun listening to him. Roy is a nice and friendly person to catch up with and have coffee and a laugh.

The group support is great, and it is terrific to have such lovely social contact’.