Gareth Owen, CEO of Volunteer Centre Westminster, reflects on the day-to-day transforming lives through volunteering
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In one of my blogs last year I mentioned that I took part in a sponsored charity swim at Marshall Street swimming pool. The objective was for 70 teams to raise sponsorship by swimming 70 lengths to raise money for a local charity supporting elderly people, Advocacy Plus. The event took part on ‘Silver Sunday’, an annual celebration of older people and the charities that support them. The organiser was a wonderful lady called Irene Kohler who has been active in the charity sector for many years and who organised this event both to celebrate her 70th year and her retirement.
Afterwards, Irene and I met up to talk about the pros and cons of the event. The cons included i) there was some confusion about fundraising and not all the participants either gathered sponsorship or raised it for the named charity, ii) my trunks were too big and created enormous amounts of drag.
However, these cons were completely outnumbered by the pros, and we decided to set about organising a similar event this year, with three key objectives: i) to provide an event that would enable different local charities to fund raise through sponsorship without having to organise their own individual events and ii) to raise awareness of the diversity and impact of charities and community groups in Westminster, and iii) to promote healthy exercise and the many sports facilities that exist in Westminster.
We are now launching ‘Westminster Charity Splash
’, a sponsored swim event taking place on Sunday 3 November at Marshall Street swimming pool
for teams raising money for any charity, community group or community project in Westminster. The idea is that each team will complete 100 lengths. Register your interest
On a separate note, it was great to get a response to last week’s blog on overseas volunteering from a volunteer called Simon who has been working in Nicaragua for the past three years. This is a really interesting and counter-balancing appendix to last week’s opinion:
I thought I would get in touch, after coming across you by chance via the Volunteer Center Westminster website. Congratulations, looks like you are doing some fantastic work!
I had a read of your latest blog, and found it very interesting, although I might be inclined to disagree with some of your conclusions.
I have been based in Nicaragua for nearly three years now, working for the organization Casa Alianza. Whilst I am suspicious of voluntary tourism, volunteers who come to work for us for a slightly longer period, say around six months, really do help the organization a lot.
In our main protection and rehabilitation shelters we have a total of 150 kids who have faced extraordinary risk, including life on the streets, drug addiction, problems with the law, and victims of abuse, violence, expolitation and human trafficking.
Volunteers tend to provide a vital source of energy to the organization in terms of being able to spend large periods of time with the kids, run activities that us full time members of staff might not have the time to be able to do, as well as bringing new ideas and initiatives to the organization.
To give an idea, volunteers for working for Casa Alianza over the last year have managed to:
Raise over $25,000 for the organization
Set up prefect style leadership programme
Open a course in martial arts
Open a course in photography
Open a course in English
Open a course in Yoga
All of these projects have provided new energy and direction to our organization. As such, I agree with you that voluntary tourism can be dangerous, especially if not managed properly, but there are times when volunteers working overseas can really help make a difference to an organization. So I would encourage you not to write it off all together.
Gareth Owen, 16/05/2013
Hundreds of thousands of young people go abroad to volunteer each year, as part of school requirements, to build their CVs, and as part of gap year trips.
I have been slightly concerned about the impact of such trips for some since hearing about the experience of a young person I know who went overseas volunteering to Uganda for three months. Part of her role was to talk to young Ugandans about sexual health and contraception and she soon realised this was an extremely challenging in view of a host of local cultural issues that she had not been prepared for, not the least of which being: why would teenage African village boys listen to a young English white woman lecturing them about sexual behaviour? There were other issues of concern relating to corruption, the overabundance of NGOs and the stock-piling of contraceptives which were also an eye opener.
On this subject, there was a very interesting programme broadcast on Radio Four last week that caught quite a lot of attention. ‘Four Thought’ was a talk presented by Daniela Papi who spent six years living in Cambodia where she founded PEPY, an educational development organization and PEPY Tours, a development education travel company.
Based on her experience, she now believes that whilst young people volunteering overseas to build schools, help in orphanages or dig wells and such like might feel good about themselves, their activities can in some instances be actually detrimental to those they are purportedly helping.
Overseas volunteering is a huge industry. However, “much of this demand is fuelled by the belief that because we come from financially wealthier countries, we have the right, or the obligation, to bestow our benevolence on people. Never mind if we don't speak the language, don't have the skills or experience to qualify for the jobs we're doing, or don't know anything about what life is like in the country we volunteer in”.
In her words, “when we go to volunteer abroad, we sometimes forget that we have to learn before we can serve. We take off to a far-away country and somehow our Superman suit or our volunteer T-shirt gives us all of the power and knowledge we need to save the world”.
Ms Papi argues that good intentions are not enough and our lack of critical engagement about international volunteering is creating a double standard that can lead to the volunteering to cause more harm than good.
For example: Orphanage volunteering is one of the most popular volunteer travel offerings in part because it fits with both our desire to be heroes and our desire for fun. In Cambodia, orphanage volunteering has become a big business. Interestingly however, while the number of orphans has decreased, the number of orphanages has risen with the rise of volunteer tourism. Unicef estimates that three out of every four children in Cambodian orphanages actually have one or more living parents.
The most corrupt orphanage managers even have an incentive to keep the children looking poor, because tourists often want to give their time and money to the poorest looking place, as they think that is where it is needed most.
I am sure that there are many positive overseas volunteering schemes and that everyone participating in this type of ‘tourist’volunteering does it for the best of motives.
However, using untrained and inexperienced young people to help address complex and sensitive issues, just so they can feel good about themselves, travel and enhance their CVs, is not necessarily the best way to address the issues being faced in poverty stricken areas of the world.
Thanks to the bbc web-site.
Gareth Owen, 09/05/2013
Perks and the Universe
Last week I was involved in recruiting a new member of staff. At the end of the interview, as usual, I asked the candidate if they had any questions. It was a bit of a surprise when they asked me what I liked so much about working at Volunteer Centre Westminster. I wasn’t expecting that. How did they know I liked it, anyway?
If you are anything like me, there are the odd occasions when travelling to and from work, especially on cold, wet mornings, you ask yourself ‘why am I doing this?’, forgetting briefly that when you were out of work, all you could think about is ‘why am I not doing this?’. This is healthy, otherwise we might as well all be Vulcan automatons, but such thinking has its dangers. If you are not careful you can end up in a dangerous place, maybe even wondering about the meaning of life, the universe, or something even more incomprehensible like radio waves.
Anyway, I had such a moment on the train home that evening. I thought about what drove me to work in London every day when I could be on a tropical beach somewhere under a palm tree, gazing at butterflies and drinking coconut milk.
Getting paid helps, but it’s not the only reason. It didn’t take me long to recall two separate incidents that happened earlier the same day when, without much prompting, different people had told me about their volunteering experiences.
The first was someone who had been unemployed for a long time, and had eventually been referred to the volunteer centre by the Job Centre. Volunteering opened up a new range of opportunities that this person had completely lost sight of and helped them feel more confident about moving on and getting back into the workplace. The second person, a busy mother of three and director of a finance company, also a volunteer mentor helping an unemployed person in their search for employment. She described the changes that the mentoring had made to her, as well as to her mentee. It had added a whole new layer of richness to her already busy life.
Mulling this over, I flicked through copy of the ‘Westminster Reporter’ (Westminster City Council’s quarterly magazine) where I came across two articles about volunteers that help us at the Volunteer Centre, Hannaa Ennasr El-idriss, in the ‘Youth Column’ and Nicole Moore in the ‘ Better City Better Lives Section’.
It occurred to me that I hear uplifting stories like these almost every day. Not many jobs offer that kind of perk.
As the train emerged from a tunnel and the sun burst out from behind a dark cloud, I decided to postpone buying the one-way ticket to a tropical island. For the time being, anyway.
Gareth Owen, 30/04/2013