As a volunteer, the greatest gift you can give is your time. Read on to discover where to donate it, how it helps the community and why it’s good for you too
With the arrival of the holy month, it’s again that time of year when we are reminded about the importance of giving back to a society that gives so much to us.
And with 2018 being the Year of Zayed, this year, the sentiment is especially significant. A humanitarian who believed in the power of his people, the founding father of the UAE became synonymous with generosity and the act of giving, donating time and aid to those on our shores and those in need elsewhere in the world.
It was his goal to “treat every person, no matter what his creed or race, as a special soul,” he once said and with a 33-year legacy behind him, it’s something we should try to uphold today.
Whoever you are, wherever you’re from and whatever your salary, it costs nothing to give your time – and we can guarantee that even if you aim to help just one person, one time, your actions will have an impact during the holy month and beyond.
“Travelling the world, you see all kinds of people from all walks of life, and you realise how blessed you are,” begins Mark Azzam, pilot and founder of tabletop gaming shop Back to Games.
Mark came to volunteering a few years earlier as part of a project in Bangladesh, where his eyes were opened to the country’s endemic socioeconomic disparity, and how it was having a profound impact on the most vulnerable in its society, its children.
Now working with kids in the Kibera slums in Kenya, he says volunteering has changed his outlook on his own life in a fundamental way.
“It’s very important for individuals who are blessed – like us – to give back to those who are needy, because that balances society,” he adds.
“Seeking it yourself and wanting to do something different in your life can enlighten you to what you already have.”
It’s an opinion shared by Sofia Antonia Gomez-Doyle, a student at NYUAD who, after volunteering in Swaziland in her final two years of secondary school, found her world-view redefined.
“Volunteering and service formed a central part of my experience,” she notes.
“Volunteering becomes a way of understanding – a lens through which to understand new places, build relationships, and embrace the values of generosity, commitment and empathy.”
It’s an ethos Sofia brought with her when she came to Abu Dhabi. Passionate about empowering young females, she co-founded the Girls’ Education Network (GEN) with classmate Ritu Muralidharan as an outreach programme to help young girls learn the value of leadership, self-reflection and mindfulness.
“Volunteering, particularly my work with GEN, has taught me the strength that lies in human connection and relationships,” Sofia says.
“I have been most impacted by the women and girls I have worked with and the lessons they have taught me about the power in investing in relationships, listening to others and thinking critically about not only what I want to do, but the person I want to become.”
For Laura-Helene Kopinski, founder of mindfulness movement Inner Seed UAE, lending a hand to people with special needs has impacted her as much as it has impacted those she works with.
“It’s soul-filling,” she smiles. “It makes you feel good – there’s no expectation on you, you’re just doing this from the heart.
“There needs to be an energy out there that we’re all human beings, and we should help other human beings – not just because of something bad happening, but because we’re here together and we are here to support each other,” she adds.
“Especially now, with the war and poverty that’s happening in the world, we’re always on edge. Knowing that there is this humanitarian love between human beings makes this world a better place.”
But can one person really make a decent impact? Yes, says Mark. “More than you’d believe,” he counters.
“When you’re volunteering, you’re impacting many people that you never know about. If you’re raising funds for your trip, you’re making an impact. When you’re telling your story, you’re making an impact. You’re helping a lot more than you think.”
Sofia agrees, adding that the smallest action can still have a big effect: “I think we have to reframe how we define impact. Large-scale impact is important and necessary, but I don’t think we should undervalue the power of impacting one individual or a small group.
“When we see our work as only doing big things, I think we lose sight of the underlying purpose that guides us. Change, and impact, are ultimately the sum of many smaller interactions and steps.”
A community culture
While the actions of each individual have their own weight, there’s no doubt that uniting over a common cause can resonate even louder – and that’s especially important in a transient place like Abu Dhabi, says Sofia.
“Given the diversity of individuals in the UAE, one question to consider is how this diversity can be leveraged in a positive way,” she reflects.
“How can we collaborate and lean on our unique talents, backgrounds, languages and experiences to create better, more sustained and impactful programmes?”
For Laura, the corporate sector has an important future role to play in nurturing a volunteering culture in the UAE.
“Volunteering does not need to be this enormous commitment; there needs to be more education on what it is,” she says.
“Even a day-to-day task can be a volunteering option, and it doesn’t have to wait for Ramadan. People spend most of their time at work, so human resources and companies can have a huge impact.
“Becoming pro-active and approaching organisations – that’s how we can help,” Laura adds.
“Volunteering gives you strength, courage and motivation – motivation to do more, help more people. If everyone could do it, we could achieve so much together.
For Mark, ultimately, the question is not ‘why volunteer’, but ‘why not?’.
“Try it,” he urges. “It might be that thing that is in the back of your mind, so make that leap and go for it. You’ll want more of it and you’ll bring more people with you next time. Above all, you’ll never regret it.
How you can help
Volunteer your time and skills here.
Helping hands: The government-owned Volunteers platform works with companies and organisations in the country to offer opportunities across all emirates in the fields of education, sport, culture and more. Visit: volunteers.ae
Give a smile: Operation Smile is doing vital work both here and abroad for children and adults with cleft conditions, and they need medical, student and community helpers. Visit: arabemirates.operationsmile.org
Human help: From relief and emergency aid to helping build houses across the UAE, the Emirates Red Crescent provides humanitarian relief on a global scale. Visit: emiratesrc.ae
Conservation nation: Support the Emirates Wildlife Society-Worldwide Fund for Nature’s goals by lending your skills to help run events or provide photography, graphic design and more. Visit: howyoucanhelp.uae.panda.org
*With new national laws in the works to regulate the practice of volunteering, be sure to keep up-to-date on what this means for any activity or event you’re planning. Visit: mfnca.gov.ae
WORDS Camille Hogg