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It’s time to start volunteering

By Asma Hamid (Our staff reporter) / 11 April 2008

Volunteering has not become a habit of people in the region as much as in the West. That may well be because of lack of awareness and incentives like experience certificates for getting jobs, finds out Khaleej Times

Amidst the hustle and bustle of a book fair held recently in the city, a 24-year-old Emirati, Yasir, was sitting in a corner surrounded by kindergarten and elementary school students. He was with them from 10am to 4 pm, telling them stories, playing games and organising competitions.

When it was time for them to leave, he stood with tears in his eyes, waving goodbye. As the children waved back, he felt that something extraordinary had happened in his life as well as theirs.

Yasir is not a teacher, but was at the fair as a volunteer to teach these children as part of the Emirates Foundation's volunteer programme, Takatof.

How many people are touched by the power of giving as showed by Yasir and how many have given their time and energy to reach out to others?

Not too long ago, most people lived in large combined families or tribes, and  members of the family or clan helped each other in every possible way. Now, as we move towards the nuclear family model, which consists only of parents and their children, and have become more individualistic, have we lost the habit of giving?

The role of volunteers in performing social services is vital in today's world, as their participation is almost invaluable during natural disasters, in the care of the homeless and the poor, in human rights and environmental organisations, in the care of the young and the old, and in keeping cultural heritage alive.

According to social scientists, voluntary work reflects an active civil society, and the level of volunteering can serve as an indicator of the progress and development of a nation.

Khaleej Times spoke with experts and ordinary people to discuss the value of voluntary work for societies and individuals and to explore people's attitudes towards volunteering.

From a randomly selected sample of 30 people of various nationalities at a local shopping centre, 25 said that they have never participated in any type of voluntary work in their lives.

Why does the concept of volunteering and efforts to help the needy people seem alien to many people?

In order to organise the non-profit sector and support it, the UAE codified a law in 1974, which formally allowed establishment of public-benefit organisations and formulated the rules  and regulations they have to follow.

According to the official statistics of the Ministry of Social Affairs (MoSA), in 2005, there were a total of 120 public-benefit organisations in the country. Abu Dhabi, with 41 organisations, had the largest number.

These non-profit organisations are divided into the following categories by the ministry: professional, humanitarian services, public arts, public and cultural services, theatre, cultural communities, and women's groups.

Currently, the public-service organisations across the country have an estimated 32,674 members, 10829 (33%) of them in Abu Dhabi. Most of these members are not paid and are thus considered volunteers.

According to the ministry, the number of people who are formal members of these organisations is not an indicator of active participation, as the activity of most members stops at membership without any actual participation.

In addition to being a member, the public can be allowed participation in the activities of these organisations through short or long-term voluntary projects. Yet most of these organisations do not actively solicit volunteers through their web sites or have the formal and organised mechanism to take interns or volunteers. This may be the main reason for the public's low voluntary participation.

Lack of awareness and no incentives

Many people equate volunteering with giving money, but according to the definition of the ministry, voluntary work is 'characterised by benefiting from the effort, time, and extra income of individuals in service of society and to provide social care to some of its sectors'. Although giving money is important, it is not enough, according to Haifa Al Shekaili, the Program Developer of the Emirates Foundation's Takatof.

'It is true that there are many who do incorporate volunteering in their life pattern, but volunteering has still not permeated the ethos of society as a valuable element in everyday life. Some people do not understand volunteering, and equate it to giving  money or needed items to others, but volunteering encompasses more than just donations.'

Another obstacle to voluntary work, cited by social scientists and directors of voluntary initiatives, is the lack of a system that incorporates and provides incentives for voluntary work.

Gergana Al Zeer, Social and Behavioural Sciences Instructor at Zayed University, says to make volunteering a part of the society, it is crucial to have a system that encourages volunteers.

'In Canada, a substantial number of people volunteer and the real reason is that they get experience and this is the only way to land a job. Thus volunteering becomes an integrated part of the system, for people still want incentives. If you live in a community where there are causes for which to volunteer, as well as a purpose in your own personal life (such as experience), then you are more likely to do it. In addition, I think that people need to be educated about issues that they can be concerned about such as the environment, violence against women and other problems in the community,' she says.

Are some causes undervalued?

Volunteering spans many areas and many interests, but do people regard some causes as unworthy of time and effort?

'My first love is animal welfare,' said Anita Signorino, trapping coordinator at Feline Friends.

She says she does not think that the local community understands the concept of animal welfare and volunteering, because she is constantly asked why she is out rescuing an injured street cat or dog.  They do not seem to think street cats or dogs deserve any help and we rescuers must be quite mad to spend our time and effort trying to help these animals.

'They keep telling me that there are children in Africa that require help and I say that yes, my husband and I do financially support a child in Africa and have done so for years,' she said.

Feline Friends (FF) is a local a non-profit organisation started in September 1991 by Lesley King, a British lady living in Abu Dhabi. It is a member society of the World Society for the Protection of Animals headquartered in London.

Volunteers rescue and re-home stray cats and kittens, promote the control of street cat population by a Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR) programme and provide care and relief to sick and injured cats and kittens.

Anita Signorino adds that it is hard for her organisation to retain volunteers.

'Many people volunteer as soon as they arrive in country as a way of making new friends. Unfortunately we lose many volunteers after they have settled in and make friends and join other social clubs.

In addition, she hopes that there is more governmental emphasis on animal welfare.

'There is no government authority that looks after the welfare of animals in this country. We hope this might be changing soon as new authorities are being formed by municipalities.

Role of education system

The education system plays a vital role in inculcating habits and values, and educators stress that compassion and empathy be taught, as well as demonstrated to children through their participation in charity events.

Jeewan Chanicka, a primary school teacher at Raha International School in Abu Dhabi, told Khaleej Times that it is critical that the education system builds the ethics of care and compassion in our students in order to broaden their horizons and help them to think 'out of the box'.'

'I believe that this ethic must be inculcated in students from the Kindergarten stage to the high school. It should begin with making personal changes, to local environments, to regional and then international,' he said.

Chanika recently organised a trip to Tanzania in which the students helped Tanzanian students by providing them with needed school supplies and helped renovate their school.

He stressed that it was important for his students to understand how the others lived, and realise the myriad privileges some people never get in their lives.

'When we went to Tanzania, I challenged the students to look not only at how we were helping the Tanzanian children but more specifically at how this experience was helping us personally. Each night, we would ask students to sit and reflect on the day and to write what they learnt in their journals to consolidate the learning that was taking place,' he said.

Chanika added that after they have returned, the children are continuing the work started in Tanzania.

'Many intend to sponsor some of the orphans there; others are working on a documentary that chronicles what happened; some on a web site and some others to continue collecting items.

'With the help of some of our parents, we will send another shipment to Loruwani in June filled with items that we hope will help them' he said.

What people say

Khaleej Times  spoke with a number of people who gave various reasons for why many people don't volunteer including lack of time, lack of awareness and lack of incentives.

Yasir, who was a volunteer at the book fair, said some affluent people may consider themselves above volunteering.

'Some people here are living in luxury and constantly being served and thus do not like to be ordered around. I know some people who would be willing to go if a charity event is in a fancy place, but if it is taking place in the street, for instance, they would not go,' he said.

Ali Nasir Alyafi'i, an Emirati, believes that people are willing and have the time to volunteer, but changes need to be made at the institutional level to accommodate voluntary work.

'Private and governmental organisations need to create volunteer departments in order to involve volunteers. In addition, they should provide incentives such as certificates that acknowledge that you volunteered for a period of time, as well as a stipend to cover the expenses that may be incurred due to transportation or other things. I feel that this is greatly lacking,' he said.

Dr Ishraqa Najmeldin, a Sudanese dentist, says that her hectic lifestyle in the past has made it difficult for her to have the time to volunteer, but she is at a point where she wants to give back to society.

'Everyone has a different way of volunteering their help,' said Shahana Agha from Pakistan, who volunteers with the Good Heart Special Care Centre

'I do agree that they have worked on it in the western world in an organised fashion, as you have to do community work for school credits or recognition, but for some giving comes naturally. Some don't see volunteering as taking time out of their time, but they just give to others because they have seen their family do it,' she says.  

Shahana said that when she talks of volunteering, she also includes everyday acts of kindness.

'When I see someone who needs a lift and I ask her where she is going, it is still giving and caring. If someone needs a seat and you get up and give it to them.

'The word volunteering is intimidating to a certain extent, but it is easy to give once people look around and find ways that they can help others,' she says.

Takatof's activities

At the weekend of April 27 and 28, 2007, groups of young Emirati volunteers swarmed into the quiet village of Qidfa in Fujairah and renovated an entire school. The campaign was organised by Takatof.

Takatof was established in Abu Dhabi in September 2006 to make volunteering a 'way of life' among people.

The first initiative of this kind in the country, Takatof aims to help find creative solutions to community needs by developing the spirit of volunteering and works in support of social causes such as children with special needs, the elderly, the sick, and the environment.

The organisation, which accepts volunteers of all nationalities, works in cooperation with many well-established UAE charitable institutions, and places volunteers to work in various fields, In a way, it liaisons with people and the organisations.

Haifa Al Shekaili said volunteers have reported that participating in the programme has been a transformational and eye-opening experience.

'Many volunteers have said Takatof provided an avenue for expressing suppressed energies and talents that they did not know how to utilise, and allowed them to gain valuable field experience in areas of their interest,' she said.

Walid Muhammad Abdallah Alrawahi, a Takatof volunteer, said that participating in a voluntary programme is beneficial to others as well as the person who volunteers.

He says in his case, he was able to land a job through volunteering with Takatof, and adds that volunteering opens doors and may serve as a turning point in one's life. Volunteers are sometimes introduced to a field of which they were unaware earlier.

To become a Takatof volunteer, anyone can register on the web site  www.takatof.com.

Organisations can call toll-free 800 - 8252863 to register their agency and enquire about volunteering opportunities.

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