COLUMN: From Terai to the Tri-Cities: the power of volunteerism

“I’m interested in your thoughts on Thursday’s elections,” I asked, interrupting a conversation on widespread unemployment in Nepal. The three local men at my table, highly opinionated entrepreneurs, responded with blank stares. In unison they chimed: “What elections?”

It was a local joke, they explained over imported whiskey and Newari delicacies that included bone marrow and deep-fried water buffalo tongue.

What does it mean to have a democracy, they asked me, in a country where it makes sense in some communities to sell an organ today to ensure that you have rice for tomorrow?

Political instability in Nepal has hampered the government’s ability to address today’s pressing development needs. Nepal’s non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are underfunded and overwhelmed.

Similarly in Canada, the global recession has led to decreased government spending. Highly valued community and school-based programs have seen their funding vanish.

The resultant gap in service provision is an issue shared by developed and developing nations alike. With the piggy bank shattered, how can we continue to meet community needs?

One solution may lie in volunteerism. Thanks to an internship with Ottawa-based Human Rights Internet (funded by the Canadian International Development Agency), I have recently had the opportunity to speak with several community based organizations in Nepal’s politically unstable Terai region. Despite barriers such as illiteracy and extreme poverty, local women have been actively disseminating information on women’s health, safe migration and gender-based violence within their communities. Some of these groups have been active for close to a decade purely on a voluntary basis.

While the Tri-City area already boasts a strong culture of volunteerism, there are opportunities to increase the number of community members involved, specifically targeting persons with different abilities, elderly persons and youth. Along with addressing community issues, community based organizations have an additional, extremely important benefit: They provide members with a sense of belonging.

When I was 14 years old, my best friend and I spent weeks telephoning different organizations looking for volunteer opportunities. Obtaining a position as a volunteer was almost as difficult as finding employment in today’s limited job market. When I was accepted as a volunteer at Eagle Ridge Manor, I was ecstatic. For almost two years, I visited elderly residents weekly, spoon feeding them and nattering on about my day. It provided me with relief from the identity I carried the rest of the week as the nurses and patients saw me differently than did my peers.

Creating a culture of volunteerism — in Coquitlam or halfway around the world — requires that volunteer opportunities become more accessible. A lengthy process riddled with rejection discourages potential volunteers.

The women’s groups in Nepal did not form on their own; NGOs initiated the groups, providing them with training and resources. Surprisingly, despite living in extreme poverty, the Nepali women I spoke with did not ask for salaries but they did ask for uniforms so that others could identify them as members of a group.

Competition is constantly present in our lives: for grades, for jobs, for partners. Considering the current focus on anti-bullying, the need for inclusive social spaces is especially relevant for youth. Reduced subsidies for art or music programs? Perhaps it’s possible to meet these needs as a community.

Volunteerism presents an opportunity to address current issues and create new forms of social belonging, ones based on collaboration rather than competition.

Two giant birds, one volunteer-chucked stone.

Tanya Lee, 26, grew up in Coquitlam, where she attended Hillcrest middle school and Centennial secondary, and where her family still lives. She’s contributing a column to The Tri-City News about her work with a human rights NGO and maintaining a blog at goneadventurin.wordpress.com.



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