Volunteering far beyond the borders of the UK
The benefits of volunteering are now well understood. We are seeing astonishing levels of volunteering now in Derby as so many people respond to the pandemic with an urgent desire to help.
As well as meeting needs in our communities most people get a sense of wellbeing from their voluntary work. Altruism – helping others for no material gain – was described brilliantly by Richard Titmus in his book about blood donors as ‘The Gift Relationship’ (1970). We get so much satisfaction from giving our time, our compassion, our love. I saw this plaque (below) on a wall earlier this year. For me it says it all.
If you are already a volunteer I’d like to convince you to think about adding an international dimension to your voluntary work. If you are not yet a volunteer then please read on. Give me five minutes of your time. It could change your life.
Ten years ago I went to Sierra Leone, a small country in West Africa, to pursue a personal interest in how people in countries which have experienced terrible civil war can heal themselves. A chance conversation with the head teacher of a village primary school drew me into a relationship with Sierra Leone which – a decade later – now gives added purpose to my retirement years.
After looking around her school I talked to Haja Khadija about how my family could support her work – we wanted our own children to have some involvement with a school in a poor country to develop their understanding of poverty in Africa. Haja’s response surprised me. ‘Don’t raise money for my school. Instead, help this girl’.
She took me into the village where we found Fatmata with two friends sitting on a bench outside her house. ‘This girl’, said Haja, ‘was the brightest in my leavers’ class two years ago. Now she sits here doing nothing. Her grandmother cannot afford to send her to secondary school. Can you help her to get the education she deserves?’
This was the inspiration which led me to set up Sierra Leone Education and Development Trust in 2012. We now enable 22 of the brightest primary school leavers from very poor homes to go to secondary school. Fatmata, our first sponsored student, has left school and is waiting to go to Law School where we will continue to support her. One day soon she will become a community leader.
Wulematu - left - is one of the young women we sponsor to go to secondary school. Our support includes a full set of textbooks which schools in Sierra Leone cannot afford to give students. (photo of Wulematu included with her consent)
Getting this international charity off the ground and helping to build it into a small, effective force for good has given me immense pleasure over the last eight years. Our other six trustees – all volunteers, remember, as well as charity governors – have also found satisfaction in enabling children in one of the poorest countries to get an education. They have enjoyed the contact with Sierra Leoneans and the chance to learn about the country, its people and its challenges. When ebola hit six years ago our involvement felt very real and immediate. This was not just an item on the six o’clock news. And today, as I write, we all follow the spread of the coronavirus in Sierra Leone and discuss with our lead volunteer Chernor Barrie how we can use our small funds to the best effect.
Left: Chernor Barrie, our lead volunteer, presents textbooks to Kandeh, one of the students we sponsor (consent obtained for use of this photo from Chernor and Kandeh)
90 donors enable us to do our work, contributing £14,000 this year. Some of them have linked their donations to particular students and get regular information about their progress. This makes their relationship with Sierra Leone so authentic and gives them opportunities for understanding what the reality of life is for poor people in a far away land. In a few instances, donors have journeyed to Sierra Leone at their own expense to see this beautiful country for themselves and have come home inspired to do more.
I believe that some involvement with an international charity can enrich your life. It is another version of that wonderful ‘gift relationship’ Titmus wrote about. Maybe you can seek an opportunity to be a trustee or a volunteer or just be a donor who takes an interest in the person or community you are helping. Some of our donors give just £5 each month – less than the price of a take-away. Or lend some money through Lend-with-Care to an African woman with a micro business and watch what difference your investment makes to her life and her children’s futures. Or join a refugee support group here in Derbyshire and learn about the lives of those who had no choice but to flee their homelands and seek help abroad.
Volunteering is about altruism. But there is a pay back in your own sense of wellbeing. I believe this is especially true of international volunteering. So, think about how you can get involved. Get in touch by email if you’d like to discuss this. I’d like to hear from you.
Kevin Curley CBE, Chair, Community Action Derby
Chair, Sierra Leone Education and Development Trust