As the coronavirus pandemic took hold everything changed – all around the world businesses, schools and individuals turned to online communication. Could we do the same for international volunteering?
As international travel ground to a halt and all the projects we support around the world were forced to close their doors, we began to think long and hard about whether and how we could continue to offer support to our local partners during the pandemic.
people and places volunteer support has always been based on skills-sharing not financial support and we wanted to work with those of our partners who could still make use of volunteers’ skills, albeit in a very different way. So over the last three months we have started to develop the concept of e-volunteering with three of the countries where we work – Morocco, the Gambia and Cambodia. (We are working with other partners to develop this model for the future – it was not an appropriate model for all of them immediately – they were and still are busy supporting their local communities, sometimes in desperate situations due to the economic impact of the pandemic).
A number of volunteers were keen to help – some had previously volunteered and were eager to offer continuing support to their projects, others have volunteer placements planned but haven’t yet been able to travel and are keen to start work in advance of their placement. We have matched their skills to project needs as we always do, and a number of initiatives are now under way.
At this stage we are still developing ideas so this is very much a work in progress – the e-volunteering opportunities we offer will be updated regularly as we and our local partners identify needs and ways in which our volunteers can offer remote support. If you would like to be involved or have any other ideas for developing remote volunteering we would love to hear from you – please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What follows is an update on the e-volunteer work we are doing now.
Three people who had volunteered in 2019/2020 in Morocco at the girls’ boarding houses run by our local partners Education for All, which provide the opportunity for girls from the High Atlas Mountains to access secondary school education, offered their on-going support for the project. The boarding houses are closed, as are schools in Morocco, until the start of the new school year in September – however one of the aims of this volunteer programme is to help the house-mothers improve their spoken English. So English conversation sessions are now taking place fortnightly on Zoom between the house-mothers and the three volunteers.
We hope these sessions can continue throughout the time while the houses are closed, and when they re-open in September we have plans to expand these sessions to include some of the older girls. To find out more about e-volunteering in Morocco follow this link https://travel-peopleandplaces.co.uk/projects/353/e-volunteer—Education-Support-for-Girls-in-Morocco-(EV)
Similarly, regular online meetings are taking place between myself (Dianne) and Dara, the head-teacher of Treak Community Centre in Cambodia.
These were intended to be mentoring sessions to help Dara as he set up online teaching for his students, though in truth he helps me as much as I help him – he knows so much more about using video-conferencing platforms than I do! Dara has been appointed as head-teacher at Treak since I last visited Cambodia so we did not know each other well until we began our regular online meetings – however I would say we have built up just as good a working relationship online as we would have done if I had travelled to Cambodia and we shall continue to work together in this way until Treak is able to re-open at the end of the year. We have not yet followed through on Dara’s suggestion that I teach one of his online classes but only because of the 6 hour time difference – I can’t quite face the thought of teaching at 5.00 am! However online teaching may well be another category we add to our e-volunteering initiative in the future, particularly for countries in a closer time zone to our own!
To find out more about e-volunteering at Treak Community Centre follow this link https://travel-peopleandplaces.co.uk/projects/352/e-volunteer—education-%26-community-support—Treak%2c-Cambodia-(EV)
Working together to produce training materials
The Gambia has a new early years’ curriculum due to be introduced at the start of the new school year in September and we had hoped to send a volunteer in July or August to help Lisong, Principal of Mary’s Little Lambs Nursery, run the training sessions for MLL staff. That of course cannot now happen – however Lisong and a volunteer who did her placement at Mary’s Little Lambs last year are working closely together to write a training manual and accompanying Powerpoint presentations. Weekly meetings take place online and emails go backwards and forwards between them most days sharing ideas, developing new sections of the training and providing feedback. The online sessions are enabling them to ask each other questions and discuss ideas, and also to share resources and go through the presentations together.
Although very slow Internet speeds and irregular power supplies in the Gambia have caused some problems in communication this has not stopped them! Their aim is that the training will be delivered in August as planned so that MLL staff and those from neighbouring schools will be fully trained when their schools are allowed to reopen in September – Lisong will then use the training materials to deliver further training sessions to teachers and trainers across the country. Lisong tells us that she enjoys the online sessions very much – she knows that we are on the same page with our plans as we can discuss ideas together. She is very happy that we have been able to plan something new even though we cannot meet, and she thanks us for helping her to get into the digital world!
To find out more about volunteering at Mary’s Little Lambs follow this link https://travel-peopleandplaces.co.uk/projects/354/e-volunteer—early-childhood-development-and-teacher-training-in-The-Gambia-(EV)
Sharing online materials for teaching and learning
A number of volunteers have offered their help in researching resources which can be used by our local partners in any of the education projects we support. We sent them a list of topics relevant to the school curriculum in these countries – volunteers are sending in links to youtube videos and other online learning resources which can be shared with teachers and students at these schools. They are being used already by Dara at Treak for his online learning programme and sent out to students via their Facebook group but we shall also be able to offer these to the other schools we support when they re-open.
Creating online teaching materials and support materials
The idea of finding or making resources which projects can access online has a lot of scope for the future. We are in the early stages of an initiative involving quite a lot of volunteers making videos of themselves reading stories – these stories will be shared online and made available to schools and similar organisations we support, giving children and teachers access to many stories not easily accessible in their countries and enabling them to hear stories read in English by English speakers. Look out for more about this in future newsletters.
Developing practical activities
A new volunteer is planning a placement in Cambodia – he had hoped to be there now but instead is spending some time while furloughed from his job to do some work with the project prior to his placement which will now take place in 2021. His skills have been matched to their needs – he has experience of organising STEM activities for children to encourage an interest in science and technology; in Cambodia he will be organising similar activities to encourage an interest in these subjects which do not form part of their normal school curriculum. So, following online discussions on Zoom with the project leader in Cambodia and with a former volunteer who had done similar work, he is going to plan some designs for simple models which the children in Cambodia can build at home using local materials – they will photograph their models to send to him, and this will provide an alternative to their regular academic learning. This initiative is in its early days – hopefully we can publish pictures of the best models in our next newsletter! In the future there is lots of scope for other volunteers to set up similar projects in their own areas of interest – arts and crafts might be obvious examples.
As the pandemic struck many of our partners launched fund-raising appeals – ranging from appeals to raise money for computers so that students could access online learning to appeals to raise money for food to feed the local community as supply chains dried up and places where food could normally be accessed were closed down. We at people and places contributed as individuals to all financial appeals by our local partners but decided early on not to put pressure on our volunteers to contribute money at a time when so many people in our own countries were also suffering financial hardship, although we know some individual volunteers have contributed to various appeals.
However we actively support initiatives to promote understanding of long-term fundraising strategies for the projects we support. One volunteer’s background is in business – she volunteered in Cambodia in 2019. She offered her skills in business and fundraising, and as well as raising immediate funds she has been working alongside Michael, one of our local partners, to help develop alternative ideas for raising an income which do not rely on tourism. I know Michael is very grateful for her input. For many of the countries where we work tourism is an important source of income – matching them to volunteers with fundraising experience is certainly something we shall explore further.
Business and marketing support
There is certainly scope for volunteers with experience of business and marketing to work digitally alongside people from any of the business projects we support. Just before the pandemic struck we were in the middle of creating a placement for a prospective volunteer who owns her own business. She had been matched to a project and still hopes to travel there in future – in the meantime she is using her skills in marketing to work with us at people and places (remotely of course as we have all been in lockdown) to promote our new e-volunteering initiative – and we are very grateful for her support!
So we have already found a number of ways to volunteer digitally and are enjoying the challenge this provides – thank you so much to all our e-volunteers! We anticipate that there will be even more opportunities in the coming months when the projects re-open but international travel remains difficult. E-volunteering has already provided a useful means for previous volunteers to continue to support their projects and for new volunteers to provide support before they go – we hope it will also be a way for people who do not want to travel to connect meaningfully with one of our projects and share their skills from home. Many people in all walks of life are saying they will continue with some of the digital meetings they have become used to in recent weeks – it seems there is scope for useful digital connections in international volunteering too! Keep your eye on our blog for further updates and do contact us if you would like to be involved – we would love to hear from you.