The most rewarding week of Wendy Hiller’s year is also her hardest.
Since 2014, Hiller, a certified massage therapist, volunteers as a massage team roadie for AIDS/LifeCycle, a seven-day, 545-mile bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
The bicyclists raise money—in 2017 they raised $15.1 million—to benefit the Los Angeles LGBT Center and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.
A deep-seated belief in the importance of helping those in need spurred Hiller to volunteer with AIDS/LifeCycle, but she has found that she gets back in personal and professional growth more than she gives out.
“Anybody who thinks that this is just a bike ride is totally mistaken,” she said. “It’s kind of a life-changing event.”
Like Nothing You’ve Seen
Volunteering as an AIDS/LifeCycle massage team roadie means experiencing massage in a way you’ve never experienced it before, said Hiller.
Take everything you think you know about the massage experience—quiet sessions with soothing music, soft lighting, calming décor—and put it aside, she said.
For six days, you’ll perform 15-minute sessions, one after another, for five hours a day alongside at least 19 other therapists under a big tent. There’s loud music, joking around, and you and your fellow massage roadies might be dressed as a pirate or Darth Vader or a unicorn. The theme changes daily.
You’ll start your day around 5:30 in the morning, grab breakfast and start loading the team U-Haul by 8. That takes about an hour-and-a-half, then you all pile in a bus and head off to the next location on the ride.
When you reach that destination, you unload everything you just loaded—massage tables and chairs, sheets, other professional gear and your personal stuff such as tents and sleeping bags. Another roadie team sets up the massage tent, but you get all the massage gear up and in place and decorate the tent (and yourself) with the day’s theme.
“You’d be amazed what people wear and still be able to do massage,” Hiller said.
After a quick lunch, the massage sessions start. Volunteers and riders come in for massages between 1 and 9 p.m. The schedule is always full.
While the massage tent is a place of rollicking fun, it is also a place where riders and volunteers have a safe and loving space to release physically and emotionally.
“Even though the atmosphere is very light and fun, there’s always that underlying reason we’re doing this,” she said. “A lot of people come in very emotional.”
Often people do the ride or volunteer for it in memory of a loved one that has died of AIDS or HIV-related illnesses or in support of someone they know living with the disease. Some come out; not as gay, but as diagnosed with HIV/AIDS.
“A lot of people come in very emotional,” Hiler said. She’s had people break down crying on her table. “You just allow it and make sure they’re OK.” They often will see her later and hug her in gratitude.
“One of the reasons I love [the ride] is because people end up showing their hearts on this ride in more than one way, and pretty much everybody’s on the same page,” she said.
That’s how Dominic Richards, a massage therapist who rides in the AIDS/LifeCycle and who has volunteered on the massage roadie team, feels, too. The atmosphere of the ride is like being “in a love bubble,” he said. “It’s hard to get used to that – just pure love with strangers is something I … wasn’t used to.”
Personal and Professional Enrichment
For massage therapists such as Richards and Hiller, the personal enrichment of the ride is why they do it, but the experience also serves to enhance their practice, too.
The fast pace means you quickly learn how to ask the right questions and make an assessment of the body before you so you can target the area that needs the most help in the short time you have with your client, for example.
With the constant churn of clients, you also learn how to get comfortable chatting (or not) with a variety of clients, some who don’t want to talk, others who may be experiencing tough emotions and those who not only want to talk, but joke around.
Unlike in most massage environments, the joking around can be and often is sexual in nature, said Richards. Massage therapists are trained not to bring sex to the table, ever, but here’s a space where you want to temper that training, he said. “You have to understand there’s a culture here and that culture includes extreme openness.”
While everyone at the event respects and understands boundaries, it’s best to be open-minded, he said. “Be prepared to work hard and be prepared to participate and be prepared to have a heck of a lot of fun—and open your mind.”
An Ongoing Concern
AIDS/Lifecyle was preceded by AIDSRides, which began in 1993 and were held around the U.S. That year the country’s number of reported AIDS cases had more than doubled from the year before and the prospects for treatment were bleak.
Today, those living with HIV/AIDS have more support services and effective treatments than in 1993, and, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the numbers of annual new cases of HIV infections are declining in the U.S.
However, HIV is still an ongoing epidemic in the U.S. and globally. According to the CDC, as of the end of 2014, the most current year for which data is available, an estimated 1.1 million people in the U.S. live with HIV.
The World Health Organization estimates that 36.7 million people worldwide were living with HIV at the end of 2016 and 1 million had died of HIV-related illnesses that same year.
Since 1993, the California AIDSRide and then AIDS/LifeCycle have together raised more than $200 million benefitting the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the Los Angeles LGBT Center.
The next AIDS/LifeCycle takes place June 3–9, 2018, and massage therapy volunteers are needed to work on cyclists. Therapists with a minimum of 250 hours of massage therapy education may visit the volunteer page of the AIDS/LifeCycle site for more information.
About the Author
Stephanie Bouchard is a freelance writer and editor based on the coast of Maine. She wrote, “It’s Tick Season—Do You Know What to Do?” and “Support Your Clients Following Disastrous Events” for massagemag.com.
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