Long-term Volunteering, Lifelong Impacts

Long-term Volunteering, Lifelong Impacts

This is an article I recently submitted to the ICYE international newsletter, on the theme ‘Assessing the impact of long-term international youth volunteering’…

“Act as if what you do makes a difference.  It does.”  – William James

All international volunteers make an impact during their placement – sometimes negative but mostly positive – on their host family, project, community and on their own lives. However, it is assessing these impacts that is the difficult part, and the reason why international volunteering is often negatively represented in the media. In my experience, volunteers contribute and gain two broad sets of skills: hard skills and soft skills. Hard skills are teachable abilities or skill sets that are easy to quantify, such as IT proficiency (e.g. setting up e-mail accounts and basic websites) or language ability. As a long-term volunteer in Uganda, I learnt the basics of the local language, Luganda, whilst helping others to improve their English. This was done very informally and mostly within my host home, where the children were eager to teach me new words in their language and correct my pronunciation. Through regular interaction and conversation with me, their English progressed significantly, whether they realised it or not.

An informal IT lesson in Sierra Leone (2012)

An informal IT lesson in Sierra Leone (2012)

Soft skills, on the other hand, are much more difficult to measure. Also known as “people skills” or “interpersonal skills,” soft skills refer to the way you relate to and interact with other people. I gained a great deal of soft skills during my volunteer placement, including teamwork, communication, flexibility, creativity and patience (a much needed attribute when working on “Africa time”!). I also recognised that I promoted and shared other soft skills with my host family, workplace and community, such as motivation and respect for the diverse needs, feelings and views of others. My Christian friends, for example, were amazed at my willingness to join my host family in the mosque for the celebration of Eid, yet I found it an honour and privilege to be asked.

Soft skills are not only difficult to quantify, but also to measure and evaluate the impact of, as they manifest themselves over time in the lives of the volunteer and their host community. When I arrived at my host home for the very first time, I remember my host mother, Madina, recounting how each of the volunteers she had received annually since 2007, and the particular impact each one had made on her family and the small nursery school which she owned. The skills they had imparted ranged from teaching swimming and first aid, to establishing a reading culture and the importance of learning through play. However, the common element of all of them was their overall impact on Madina’s attitude to life and decision-making. Despite the age difference, she was very open to learning from the young volunteers, believing strongly in collaboration and asking the opinions of others.

The beginnings of 'Buddy Reading'

The beginnings of ‘Buddy Reading’ (Uganda, 2014)

To look back, seven years on, and see the difference that these young volunteers played in her life, and no doubt she in theirs, it is not an exaggeration to say that volunteering changes lives. Although many volunteers will pass on hard skills and soft skills, and pick up others, the overwhelming impact of long-term volunteering can be labelled as simply ‘life experience’. For although life experience is very difficult to measure in terms of its impact and outcomes, volunteering experiences do make a difference in shaping people’s lives and life choices, in the next seven or even seventy years to come.

AmFuture

AmFuture

“I am the future”, or “AmFuture” for short, is the name of a very special group of young people I’ve had the privilege to become friends with and lead over the last nine months.

I first got involved with them when a friend asked me to come along with my guitar one Saturday afternoon. After that first meeting, I was hooked. Hooked by their vibrancy and passion; their selflessness and generosity; and their sheer tenacity and overwhelming positivity. Maybe that’s why I haven’t been able to get them out of my head for a single day, for the whole of the last 3 weeks I’ve been in the UK.

When asked to speak at my church last Sunday, I couldn’t help but focus it on AmFuture. For me, they sum up a lot about my experience in Uganda, whether it be friendships, youth culture, Christianity or anything really.

Speaking at church on Sunday

Speaking at church on Sunday

So what exactly is AmFuture? And why is it so special?

Well, Uganda has the world’s largest percentage of young people under the age of 30 – 78% and a large proportion of these young people are uneducated and unemployed. In fact, Uganda has the highest youth unemployment in the whole of Africa.

Since March 2013, AmFuture has been meeting once a week in one of the leader’s homes to share stories, sing together and hear the word of God. Beginning with around 20 people, the group has now grown to over 50 regular members.

AmFuture meeting

AmFuture inspires, encourages and nurtures its members to believe that they are the future of Uganda, and that they have the potential to make positive changes towards their country, families and in their own lives.

Specifically, we believe that every person that attends AmFuture is special (especially to God), and that they have their own talent and something to offer. Our vision is to see young people making positive changes and believing that they can ‘pursue their dreams’ by offering them words of encouragement, a listening ear and a safe place to attend.

So what happens at AmFuture?

Every Saturday afternoon we meet as a group at one of the leader’s homes.  It’s a time for our members to hang out, listen to and play music, share food and talk, pray together and reflect on a topic introduced by one of the leaders (often this involves a bible study).

Lately, we have also been running regular movie nights and on a few occasions have taken some of the members to visit other youth groups and fellowships.

Songs learnt as a group have also been sung by some of the young people at church services within the community.

Why is it so important?

A lot of AmFuture members lead difficult lives, with family problems and youth unemployment affecting every single one of them. As a result, AmFuture doesn’t just serve a social purpose, but a family one too. AmFuture is there for the young people in a way that a lot of friends and family aren’t, and members support each other unquestionably and to the full. Already, a number of individuals have been given the courage and guidance to turn their lives around, and it’s an amazing thing to witness.

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In 2015, AmFuture’s vision is to help tackle youth unemployment amongst its members, by establishing projects such as a piggery, as well as providing funding and support for the young people to start up their own enterprises and businesses, using their personal talents and skills.

We would also love to purchase some musical equipment so that some of the members can grow their singing talent and perform in the wider community. In time, we believe that this group could find paid bookings at functions, restaurants and hotels in Kampala, resulting in funding for AmFuture and the young people themselves.

Kairos Music, Dance and Drama Day

Two AmFuture members awarded for exceptional music, dance and drama performances at their secondary school

Supporting AmFuture

To help AmFuture achieve its vision, please consider supporting one of our projects. Any contribution is very welcome and we will be sure to keep you updated on our progress.

(a) Donation towards the running of AmFuture

Help us to cover the cost of weekly meetings and additional events over the next year.

(b) Sponsorship of an individual to start a business (e.g. arts & crafts, tailoring, farming) –

£25 is enough to help an individual with a talent or idea to start a business. Closely monitored and guided by the leaders of AmFuture, these enterprises will not only teach them valuable skills such as book-keeping and management, but also provide a vital income for them and their families.

(c) Donation towards the AmFuture piggery –

Support our 2015 project by sponsoring a piglet! Starting with 4, we will slowly expand our piggery under the watchful eye of two of our young people with farming experience. The profits generated will go to those working on the project and AmFuture itself.

Each piglet costs £25 but all contributions are very welcome!

Finally…

For any more information on AmFuture, please feel free to contact me on emmabaker173@gmail.com, or go and check out the AmFuture facebook page – just click here: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Amfuture/476703619089133?hc_location=timeline

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Thanks for reading!!