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19 October 2017Last updated
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Do you want to volunteer in the UAE?

This Ramadan, donate the most precious thing you can give someone - your time

Shreeja Ravindranathan
9 Jun 2017 | 10:02 am

Fatima Ahmed Lari will never forget the day during Ramadan of 2015 when she rushed home to offer prayers in gratitude, having just distributed food and clothes to underprivileged families in the city of Al Shamkha in Abu Dhabi.

‘I knew there were poor families in the UAE but I had never met them. When you see it in front of you and you see how people are living you say Alhamdullilah for what you have. Other people [less fortunate than you] wish [for] what you have. I felt so thankful, it was so touching for me,’ the 26-year-old Emirati recalls.

Fatima’s venture into the home and hearth of the UAE’s poor was part of a Ramadan outreach project undertaken by Takatof, a volunteer program set up by the Emirates Foundation (the Abu Dhabi government’s independent philanthropic organization) in 2007 for the UAE’s youngsters.

Her first incursion into volunteering was made even more special and poignant for Fatima by the fact that her act of goodness was carried out during Ramadan, the holy month of giving: ‘we would start distributing the boxes of food and clothes after iftar and we had our suhour with them, outside their houses.’

She also describes spending time with the families and physically handing them the packages of essentials more rewarding than simply donating money or material items. ‘They were so happy, saying to us ‘thank you, thank you very much.’

‘And the act of volunteering made me feel like I’m doing something for my country and our community. It made me feel proud.’

Giving back to the community has been the focus of the UAE this year, especially with 2017 being officially declared as the ‘Year of Giving’ by His Highness Shaikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the President of the UAE and the spirit of volunteering has been an integral part of it.

Only last week, a national volunteering platform was launched by the leaders of the UAE to commemorate the Year of Giving. Both Emiratis and residents can register on the website (volunteer.ae) developed by the Emirates Foundation.

The humanitarian gestures of charity and giving back to community are some of the important keystones of Ramadan and what can be a more valuable way of contributing to the society we live in than by donating your time, compassion and energy through volunteering?

Maria Conseicao, founder of the Maria Cristina Foundation and Dubai-based philanthropist feels that ‘everybody is in a position to help somebody less fortunate, no matter how big or small the act is.’ Maria recently completed record 6 ironman challenges in six continents in 58 days to raise money for 125 school children in Dhaka.

Following in Maria’s footsteps might be a herculean task but there’s simpler ways to challenge yourself and dedicate your time and energies to causes here in the UAE this Ramadan.

Friday met several dedicated individuals like Maria, from various walks of life who all share one common attribute: their belief that there is no nobler method of devoting yourself to your community than volunteering.

While the Dubai Volunteering Program conducted by the Community Development Authority, the Emirates Foundation’s national volunteering website, and established government-approved charities like the Emirates Red Crescent are great starting points, the nation is teeming with small home-grown organisations and causes that always need an extra pair of hands. Here’s our pick of a few organisations you can dedicate those extra few hours you get during Ramadan, and the ins and outs of volunteering in the UAE:

K9 Friends

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How often do healthy, happy animals fit into our definition of a well-rounded, functional society or community?

Not often enough, we learn during a trip to the K9 Friends dog shelter in Jebel Ali, Dubai that is currently home to 140 homeless dogs.

The facility’s management director Alister Milne told us about the acute need for volunteers at the shelter: ‘Last Saturday there was only 1 person in the office and they had to answer 57 phone calls which meant they couldn’t do anything else.’

And there’s plenty to be done at the 28-year-old establishment from rescuing abandoned and abused pooches to frontlining (treating them for flea and ticks) to de-worming them and dispensing medications to the canines that need them, to homeing them – matching them to suitable adoptive families. That’s just the kennels. The admin aspect of things in the office that ranges from answering phone calls to vetting out potential adopters is another ballgame.

‘These are just our main daily chores, but if we’ve got quite a few volunteers we then have enough people who can get them [the dogs] out of the kennels and socialise with them, give them a good brush and bathing,’ says Jake Menzies, a volunteer. ‘It’s amazingly helpful to have more volunteers because we can get so much done.’

Jake, 22, has been volunteering at the kennels for over three years now and started out shadowing experienced volunteers like every K9 volunteer does. He makes no bones about how tough and often heart-breaking volunteering at the shelter can be due to shortage of manpower and the terrible cases of abused animals that come in. Shania Klokone, an 18-year-old gap year student who has been volunteering with K9 for 10 months now tells us the heartrending story of a dog who came in a metal cage in the back of a truck in the hot heat of summer: ‘there was only this one volunteer who worked relentlessly with her and transformed that dog into a happy wag-a-tail animal.’

People develop bonds with dogs all the time, says Alister: ‘but it’s strange because the more you like and love a dog the more you hope you never see them again. We had a dog, Simon the Saluki, that had been with us for three years after he was found in an accident with a broken leg. He was just homed 4 months ago and I had two volunteers who were in tears. We had messages from Scotland, Canada and Australia from ex-volunteers.’

‘Animals don’t have a voice so they can’t shout out for help, which makes it even more important that we find the time to help them.

How to volunteer at K9 Friends:

K9 hosts volunteer coffee mornings on the second Sunday of each month open to everyone over 18 years. Experienced volunteers from K9 show a presentation to explain what they’re looking for in volunteers and those interested can sign up. People keen to work in the kennel have to attend a two-hour training session the following week and shadow experienced volunteers until they’re sure-footed. ‘We get people who have grown up with dogs and people who’ve never handled animals,’ Alister explains. If roughing it out and getting dirty in the kennels isn’t your cup of tea, then there’s plenty other things you can do. ‘We’ve got volunteers who only do vet runs for us: they come in, pick a dog up, take it to the vet get it neutered or treated for bruises.

Starting October, the shelter will also restart their dog-walking program: people can call the kennel, make an appointment, pick up a dog, take it out for a walk (the shelter will give you a list of places dogs can be walked at), and bring it back by 5.30pm. ‘It’s a brilliant way for us to get our dogs out, especially high energy breeds that really need exercise,’ Alister explains.

‘The biggest problem is the hours we’re open – 9am-1pm – and trying to find people who are free to come in during the week. Summer is especially a difficult period as most of our volunteers are travelling and there aren’t enough experienced volunteers to train new ones.’

Contact them at 04 8878739 or visit k9friends.com.

Al Noor Training Centre for Special Needs

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Growing up, Kiran Borkar’s school in Mumbai was located next to a special needs school called Dilkhush. It was a building he passed daily on his way to school and while he often wondered about what the children inside were like and what they were taught he never once stepped inside the premises. ‘Even after I moved to Dubai 16 years ago I’d think about that place occasionally,’ he says.

Today, Kiran has quit his job as a marketing professional in an IT firm to focus on starting his own consultancy. ‘That’s only in the evenings. My days are dedicated to my volunteer work in Al Noor,’ he says. Kiran joined the special needs school as a volunteer three months ago after he had an epiphany one morning: ‘I woke up and realised that this country has given me my career, whatever I’m today has been because of this country and I asked myself ‘what have I given back to society?’

Today, he might be in between jobs but Kiran’s mental fulfilment and satisfaction knows no bounds as he assists trained professionals and teachers in the Scholastic green classroom full of teenage boys. To the outside world these young men might be held back by autism, cerebral palsy and other physical and cognitive challenges but having worked closely with them Kiran can only see their unique stories and will to overcome disabilities, calling them ‘the determined ones’, the term His Highness Shaikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai introduced in the national policy for special needs earlier this year.

Italian-Nigerian Victoria Izibeya Yakiah decided to stop by and see how she could help at the centre when she was passing by one day: ‘the next thing I know was I’m doing an orientation. I started out thinking I’d volunteer once a week for one hour or twice a week for one hour. But once I started I decided to continue coming in practically every day,’ says the stay-at-home mum.

Victoria graduated from feeding children who have limited motor skills to assisting with academics in the primary classes for kids aged eight to 10 years. ‘There’s really a need in Al Noor for people to come an assist. Sometimes in the class we have nine kids and just three staff members and each child needs one-on-one attention.’

Isphana Al Khatib, the director at Al Noor Training Centre explains why. ‘An organisation like ours is always struggling for resources so when volunteers can provide the services we require we’re happy. The programs we run are quite intensive, specific and individualised and volunteers help us enhance our programs. They are not a replacement for qualified and experienced staff, they fortify the work we do.’

Each class has a teacher, a teacher’s assistant, a teacher’s aid and volunteers.

Both Kiran and Victoria are unanimous in their view that it’s not the knowledge volunteers can impart that counts but the company, love and affection they can provide to the children. ‘Unfortunately, not everyone treats ‘the determined ones’ as part of the general society. So, when [able-bodied] people like us make them feel like part of our life on a regular basis, the look on their faces is like a blessing from God,’ says Kiran.

Victoria has seen the kids progress from being unable to form proper sentences to describing pictures placed in front of them: ‘and wow, that just feels like you’ve given them something and it’s too joyful.’

Kiran is best buds with some of the boys in his classes who jump up and hug him the moment he enters the class. ‘Our children,’ says Isphana, ‘develop strong bonds with the long-standing volunteers. We have had some volunteers go on to become staff members. We’ve had long-standing volunteers here: there’s an elderly Indian lady who’s been with us for years and teaches sewing in the vocational workshops. We’ve called her aunty for so long I can’t even recollect her full name!

Volunteering at Al Noor Training Centre:

Al Noor runs a volunteer interaction program every two week for people over 18 years; no pre-qualifications are required. ‘We give them a presentation, a tour of the centre, and people have an in-depth awareness about the centre and what possible volunteer opportunities could be the best fit for them,’ says Isphana.

Currently, Al Noor has around 48 volunteers and are open to more. It’s not just the academics you can help with at Al Noor: physical therapy, sports, art and conducting weekend outings (films, trips to museums) are other opportunities. ‘Those who identify with our cause but find it emotionally difficult to interact with the children directly can work in our suitability department – we help to raise awareness and funds by selling products handmade by our students like bakery items, handicrafts and artwork,’ adds Isphana. Al Noor is licensed by the Ministry of Social Affairs as a registered charity.

‘What we look for from volunteers is commitment. If you can only come in one hour a week we’re fine with it as long as they do it every week for a considerable amount of time.’ Isphana says.

To volunteer, visit alnoorspneeds.ae/volunteer or email jlaura@alnoorspneeds.ae.

Care2Share

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It’s 7am on a Friday morning but the excited energy of eight-year-old Aditi Ajith and five-year-old Aniruddh Ajith belies the fact that the siblings are accompanying their parents to workers’ accommodation in an industrial area in Sharjah.

‘I don’t feel sleepy, I like coming here because sharing with others is good and these uncles ask me what’s your name and how old are you,’ Aniruddh chirps, in between handing out food packages to a long line of workers that stretches for a good kilometre and only keeps building during the course of next one hour. The Ajiths, along with eight other people, have gathered at this cluster of workers’ accommodation today as part of a drive conducted by Care2Share, a CSR Initiative by Medulla, a Dubai-based CSR consulting company that identifies and supports the needy blue-collar workers in the UAE.

Care2Share’s project manager Roshni Raimalwala, is supervising the efficient assembly line of individual volunteers who have come together for this project. It’s an effective, quick operation. The group reaches the location pre-identified by Care2Share, and within minutes trestle tables are set up and cartons of piping hot food that the individuals want to give to workers are placed on the tables, while other volunteers crowd control. Today, the workers have been given a bottle of cooking oil, fruit, some bakery buns and samosas.

Mallika Ravi, a 56-year-old spiritual healer is here today to celebrate her father’s birthday by gifting piping hot samosas to the workers that she had delivered half an hour before. ‘This is usually how I celebrate birthdays in the family. The reaction [of gratitude] that you get from them is more satisfying that throwing a party,’ she says teary eyed as she goes on to describe how a simple ‘thank you’ or good ‘morning’ from them makes her day.

Raja Aiyaa, from Hyderabad, has worked at the accommodation as a watchman for 20 years, and had no words to describe his happiness – only a mellow smile as he brings his palm over his hearts. Mohammad Shapon, from Bangladesh, is more articulate about ‘the good wishes’, that ‘come automatically from our heart. This is a really good deed, there are lots of poor people here who can’t afford to spend money on all of this [the food and groceries being distributed] as they don’t have enough salary.’

Saroj Raut, a 22-year-old Nepali, has seen Care2Share before but never had a chance to come as his work as a garbage collector clashed with his handout times.

‘Now that I’m here and I’ve experienced this myself it’s such a nice thing, they’re doing an act of humanity. I earn a salary of Dh1,100 per month and work for eight hours daily. It’s not enough to buy these wonderful things. They’re doing a good deed; of connecting and uniting people, it shows compassion.’

Anwar, is proof that the passion and dedication to volunteer is independent of your financial wherewithal. He’s here today to help with crowd control around 200-300 people and provide assistance unloading and loading packages. This is the 32-year-old office boy’s way of contributing because he can’t buy items and gifting them to the labourers. ‘It’s so rushed we don’t have time to sit and talk with them but when there’s time they tell us of their hardships: they get very small salaries, have no facilities and they miss their families because they only go home every two or three years.’

Anwar has been attending Care2Share handouts for four years and he intends to volunteer here as long as he’s in the UAE: ‘If I miss a Friday because I’m sleepy or I’m busy with some other work I feel bad and keep thinking about why I didn’t go.’

Being a part of Care2Share Drives:

Care2Share volunteer drives, says Roshni Raimalwala, are open to all ages, nationalities and genders. The only qualifications are that volunteers be ‘dedicated and patient along with a genuine concern for making a difference in the society.’ Participants can either choose to come with items they’d like to gift or else they’re also welcome to just lend a helping hand and help distribute the gifts. ‘Perishable items such as food products and non-perishable essential goods are accepted as part of contributions for all our drives,’ Roshni adds. For Ramadan Care2Share will identify needy camps and help corporates organise iftar meals. If you want to be part of a volunteer drive simply reach out to Roshni at 04 383 5494 or email her at roshni@medullame.com.

“Wanna Read?”

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‘Books are for people who wish they were somewhere else’

Mark Twain’s famous words hold the most truth when the people concerned are kids stuck in a hospital. The opportunity to offer them an escape and respite from the stark reality of hospitals is what launched ““Wanna Read?””, a volunteer program where people are encouraged to read to young patients, either in the dedicated “Wanna Read?” rooms or at their bedsides.

‘In the hospitals patients can get very bored and they don’t have a lot to occupy their time. Anytime someone knocks on their door it’s a doctor or nurse. When I knock on their door I’m bringing them an escape and an alternative for a few hours two-three times a week,’ says Gabrielle O’Kane, head volunteer at “Wanna Read?”.

“Wanna Read?” is a non-profit organisation established in 2013 by Shaikha Shamma bint Sultan bin Khalifa Al Nahyan that creates reading rooms for children in hospitals across the UAE; they’ve currently established 15 reading rooms. The idea was inspired from an organised book reading of the Shaikha first children’s book, The Lost Princess in the library at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

Gabrielle, 38, is a registered (non-practising) nurse but she has accrued multiple talents as a “Wanna Read?” volunteer since 2015– she is attuned to read the read body language of patients, to read signs of pain and leave them alone or to sense interest and read to them/bring a book to them anyway because sometimes they say no out of shyness. Sometimes she reads out to them and at other times she reads with them, taking turns and engaging them by reading in funny voices and modulating her tone for each character: ‘my dad used to read for me when I was small and he’d use different voices, if you use a monotonous voice they won’t be engaged or responsive.

‘It’s such a simple act to read someone a story or to provide a mobile library service and it costs me nothing to do it. And I’m humbled by how grateful some of the kids and parents are,’ she says.

If you’re eager to donate books only donate new ones and not used ones, Gabrielle pipes in, so hospitals can ensure infection control.

Kylie Brownlee, the manager of communications at “Wanna Read?” outlines how you can sign up to volunteer at “Wanna Read?”: ‘individuals can participate by contacting our office and attending our orientation sessions, which are the first steps.’

Reading to children or carting around a mobile library for them to choose from aren’t the only ways volunteers can participate at “Wanna Read?”.

The organisation hosts events to fundraise and provide a getaway for young patients like an Alice in Wonderland-themed afternoon tea they hosted last year and a second-hand book sale hosted in World Trade Centre earlier this year. ‘We need volunteers to coordinate events and organise sponsored readathons and spellathons at schools, help us with general admin and sort donated books at our office in Abu Dhabi, to help paint and brighten up reading rooms in hospitals,’ says Kylie. Volunteers simply need to be active, friendly, enthusiastic, happy, and most importantly have a love for reading!

Call 02 5555 494 or email volunteer@wannaread.ae.

The happy side effects of volunteering:

In the nineties’ hit sitcom Friends, Joey tells Phoebe that there is no ‘truly selfless good deed’ referring to the unintended returns that comes with an act of kindness or generosity, a positive feeling experts call the ‘helper’s high’. Dr Monica de Sousa Mendes, clinical psychologist at Valiant Clinic Dubai, says this is a solid reason to do more good and volunteer more as research has linked generosity to better health and improved happiness: ‘any kind of altruistic behaviour activates regions of the brain associated with pleasure, social connection and trust, creating a warm glow effect [euphoria].’

Kiran Borkar channles the positive energy his interactions with the students and staff at Al Noor give him into building his business work. ‘My time at Al Noor leaves me refreshed,’ he says. ‘I can’t explain the feeling but at some point you’ll realise you’ve become a much more responsible and peaceful person at heart.’

Volunteering, Dr Mendes says adds not only improves well-being but it’s also linked to decreased depression and promotes a sense of trust and cooperation that strengthens our ties to others. A study published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology found that people who gave social support had lower blood pressures than people who didn’t. ‘There is evidence that while doing volunteer work for charitable institutions the brain secretes feel good endorphins such as serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin, a compassion and bonding chemical,’ says Dr. Mendes.

When Jake or one of the K9 volunteers are having a bad day, playing with the puppies cheers them up instantly: ‘you can see people sat in the arena playing with the puppies and within 5-10 minutes we’re happy because we’ve made them [the dogs] happy by spending time with them.’

If an act of kind goes around, it comes around explains Dr Mendes: ‘Studies have suggested that when we give to others our generosity is likely to be rewarded by others down the line.

‘When you see the happiness on the faces of the little girls we helped - you know that you will only get good in return,’ Fatima Lari says of her volunteer experience.

To Victoria, ‘it is important to volunteer because it gives you an internal joy; you don’t see it but you feel it. When you give, you’re also gaining something in return ’

The bottom line? Do good and you’ll feel good.

Shreeja Ravindranathan

Shreeja Ravindranathan