The Personal Touch

I’ve just got back into the office after an exciting awards ceremony that I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to disclose further information about until tomorrow – but suffice to say it’s very positive for the charity I work for and will hopefully provide us with leverage to a higher platform of media awareness.

It’s exhausting spending hours waxing lyrical about what your organisation does, but it’s also immensely satisfying, and it’s reminded me of the importance of establishing face to face contact with people instead of always relying on email introductions and social media to do the job. No form of online contact can ever match the effectiveness of face to face interaction, but sadly in our ever-more isolating technological world we are all too often resorting to anything but that mode of communication.

Much as I hate to wax lyrical about ‘when I was young’ (not least because it makes me feel, at the age of 32, positively ancient), there is a hugely notable difference between what it was like to be a teenager then and what it’s like now. I remember signing up to rudimentary chat rooms and carrying around a mobile phone the size of a brick solely to put my mother’s mind at rest, but back then Facebook was but a seed germinating in Mark Zuckerberg’s brilliant mind, and the concept of instant messaging my friends instead of calling their family homes to organise meeting up under Carfax Tower in Oxford on a Saturday afternoon was unthinkable.

Times have changed so much since my childhood and society is, as it always does, adapting. On the whole I am an advocate of social media (I use it enough in my personal life, how could I not be?), but today has reinforced the importance of occasionally reverting to more old fashioned methods. Embracing change is all well and good, but sometimes the old ways really are the best.

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Why I will (sadly) never play the Dane

This may well be my time of the month talking (they don’t call it ‘The Curse’ for nothing, boys. Sorry, too much information), but over the past couple of days I’ve found myself musing on the nature of ambition and, well, wondering how it is that somewhere along the way I managed to lose mine. Don’t get me wrong, I still have crazy dreams of writing a best-selling novel and retiring by the age of forty (forty five at a push) with millions in the bank. But back in the real world – the one where I have to work to earn money to put a roof over my head, avoid starvation and so forth – as my best friends forge ahead with their careers, so my drive to excel in the field in which I work has all but dried up.

Thinking back I’m not sure I ever was enormously ambitious in a wanting-to-set-up-my-own-company-and-be-a-CEO sort of way. I just had a quiet confidence that I would eventually establish a niche for myself and be happy. And, after a few blips along the way, I’m glad to report the happiness part is very much a feature of my life as it is today. The niche, however, has very much still to be carved and, much as I try to deny it, this is much to my chagrin.

There was, a few years back, a moment when I stood (metaphorically speaking) at a fork in the road and surveyed my options. The road on the left would take me further along the corporate path I was treading, with higher financial rewards but, in return, higher personal sacrifice. The road on the right would see me take an altogether more altruistic journey. Of course my moral compass won out and, on the whole, I don’t regret my decision. Working in the charity sector has its rewards – how many people can honestly say they care about what they do? – but it’s not without its limitations.

Next week I’ll turn thirty two – gulp – and yet I still have no idea what I want to be when I grow up, not really. What I do know, with depressing clarity, is how Montague Withnail felt when he said the following:

“It is the most shattering experience of a young man’s life, when one morning he awakes, and quite reasonably says to himself: I will never play the Dane.”

If Carlsberg did overtime…

This weekend we’re recording a short film with some of our young people which will be shown at the charity’s annual supporter event in November. Tonight was the first stage; getting everyone together to rehearse their stories so they feel comfortable in front of the camera when we shoot for real tomorrow.

I knew it would be a powerful experience but in reality it blew me away. Even though they’ve all faced so many challenges in their relatively short lives, every single one of them was able to open up and tell their story honestly and from the heart, which was testament to how much they trusted and felt supported by one another. The rapport between the group and the strength of positive feeling towards the charity – all the young people without exception attribute it to changing their lives for the better, some even said they didn’t know what would have become of them without the intervention – was so incredibly moving, my words can’t even do it justice.

The whole experience left me full of admiration for these astonishing young people, who are taking their negative experiences and turning them into positive ones – literally turning their lives around with our ongoing support and encouragement. I feel humbled to have been present as they shared their stories, and so excited to see them again tomorrow as they do it again ‘for real.’

And, most of all, I feel incredibly fortunate to have myself had such a comparatively trouble-free life. Hearing some of the young people’s stories really made me realise just how trivial some of the things I’ve been through really were, even though at the time they may have seemed horrendous (I always have been good at melodrama). That’s not to say at times I haven’t been through tough times, just that I’m so grateful to have always been supported through those times by people who loved me.

Wow, what a night. Sometimes working overtime isn’t a chore at all – it’s an honour and a privilege.

Letter to A.Chugger

Dear A.Chugger,

Though it breaks my heart to trample your enthusiasm (for which, I must admit, I do admire you) beneath the giant foot of my disinterest, I do believe it’s in your best interest in the long term. I’m guessing by your bright eyes and earnest expression this is new to you and you’ve yet to experience the crushing blow of multiple defeats. But soon I fear this house of cards you’ve built will come crashing down around you and the grim reality will wash over you like a tidal wave, drowning your hopes and aspirations in the torrent.

Let me paint you a picture of your typical client. A frazzled office worker, this person spends their days juggling so many metaphorical balls and treading so many deadline tightropes that they may as well be in the circus. On those rare and precious occasions that they are unshackled from their desks they like to float aloft their glorious daydreams of escape to tropical climes. When faced with the dreadlocked exuberance of youth in human form holding a clipboard, therefore, they are understandably reticent to engage in banter, no matter how jolly that banter might be.

The thing is this: We understand you’re raising money for the kids/dolphins/blind one eyed tree frogs, and it’s not that we’re cold-hearted bastards who don’t care a jot for the future of this planet we live on. It’s just that our time is short, and those of us who are of a philanthropic persuasion will mostly already be signed up to a two pound a month direct debit scheme to help our chosen cause. We are not, therefore, about to waste your time and effort by listening to you touting your cause.

I don’t mean to be cruel, you really do seem nice, but why not take that sunny disposition somewhere where it’s appreciated, before it gets ground out of you by the army of grim-faced commuters who pass by you, unseeingly, each day? Put your clipboard down, son, and get a job on the frontline of Greenpeace, if you must, or maybe in a bar in Ibiza or a theatre school in west London? The world is your Oyster, so step aside and let us Oyster card holders be.

Yours,

A.Commuter

Acts of charity

I’m currently reading Khaled Hosseini (he of Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns fame)’s wonderful new book, And the Mountains Echoed. In it (don’t worry, no spoilers ahead) there’s a character who makes great gestures of kindness, but who only ever does so in a very public way. In other words, it could be said that were he not to get recognition and praise for his actions, he might not feel it worth doing them in the first place.

This morning I rose early to run from my flat in Clapham to the flat my boyfriend’s just moved out of in Camden. I needed to do the run as part of my half marathon training, but had selected the route as I’d been asked by my boyfriend to pick up the last of his things, and latterly also by his flatmate to pick up the sofa cushions from the dry cleaners. None of this was any trouble as far as I was concerned, I was happy to do them a favour and help out.

When I reached the dry cleaners and discovered there was an outstanding charge of £35 on the cushions, however, I’ll admit my spirit of generosity waned somewhat. Fortunately I had brought my cash card and was able to pay, after which I duly traipsed back to the flat to put the aforementioned covers back onto the cushions – which turned out to be far from an easy task given their size and the amount of feathers that flew out with every squeeze. Fifteen minutes and several swear words later I was standing in the living room triumphantly surveying my handiwork in successfully reintroducing the cushions to their covers – the downside being that I was now ankle deep in feathers and the living room looked like an illegal cock fighting ring. Cue an impromptu tidy up mission and more cursing, whilst the part of me that had so happily agreed to do the favour in the first place steadily began to regret the decision.

The main – rather uncharitable -thought that went through my head at that final moment was “they’d better appreciate this,” which is when I drew a parallel with the character in the novel I’m reading, and also when I wondered the following question: Is doing someone a favour any less charitable if it’s not the act of doing the favour that gratifies you but rather being thanked for having done it? Furthermore, do we as human beings have a deeper desire to help one another or to help ourselves? Which is the most prominent driver?

Those who do favours for others gladly and happily without grumbling or expecting thanks are clearly the most admirable. But surely there’s still something to be said for the rest of us mortal beings who do favours for others and do then expect thanks in return? After all, there are plenty of miserly souls out there who would rather stab themselves in the eye than do a favour for someone else in the first place….Right? Or wrong?

Give young people a chance

Yesterday afternoon I popped into the office to meet some of the members of our Youth Led Consultancy Board (YLCB for short). We’ve been grappling with what the charity’s strapline should be for a few weeks and all felt it was important to get input from the young people – who have themselves all completed the Teens and Toddlers programme – because without it we’d be hypocritical to call ourselves a truly youth-led charity.

Within minutes of starting the brainstorm they’d come up with a better suggestion for the strap line than any of the ones we devised in the staff brainstorm meeting last week. It was so inspiring to meet them and find out what they’re all doing now-mostly about to finish college exams and waiting for results to find out if they’ve got university places. They’re living proof our programme really does work at helping disadvantaged young people get into further education and employment, and it was a joy to see how bright, motivated and enthusiastic they all are.

Working with the young people is teaching me so much about the dangers of preconceptions and stereotypes. So many people write off vast swathes of today’s youth as being wasters who refuse to do the necessary work to succeed, but for most that’s categorically not true. They want to achieve, they just need extra help to believe that they can.

This one was taken in 2007 when I made a banoffee pie and brought it into the orphanage for the kids to try – they couldn’t get enough of it!

Past Post: Volunteering abroad (published on Guardian Online, 2007)

Another Monday morning in the office and you’re distractedly staring out of the window, thinking that there must be more to life and wondering how you can feasibly escape the daily grind, if only for a while. And then it comes to you: why not spend a few months volunteering abroad? A great idea, you think, as you sneakily open up an internet browser window and begin to do some research. Within minutes, however, you are staring dumbfounded at the website of a well-known ‘ethical travel organisation’ and thinking your only chance of affording to do a placement would be to take out a second mortgage on your flat – and possibly sell your car to boot.

It would be naïve to assume that living and working in a developing world community for any length of time would be without its costs, but in my own experience the vast majority of companies that come up on a basic ‘volunteering abroad’ Google search charge extortionate prices for what amounts to several weeks or months of living in the most basic conditions imaginable, and furthermore give you very little idea as to exactly where your money is going.

Before my own African adventure I obtained quotes from several of the largest and best-known volunteer placement agencies and was stunned to find, at the top end of the spectrum, programme fees in excess of £1,000 for a two-week placement! Admittedly the more expensive options are touted as ‘all-inclusive’ packages offering such extras as in-country support, transport to and from your place of work and possibly language training, criminal bureau checks and medical insurance for the duration of your trip, but the question is: are these things you could arrange yourself for a little more effort and at a fraction of the cost?

Don’t be fooled by the phrasing when it comes to money – whether you are asked for a programme fee outright or a ‘donation’ towards the cause, it amounts to the same thing. You have to pay for your placement. End of. And if you feel the company you have chosen is worthy and honourable, go for it. I did with Volunteer Africa and I don’t regret my decision. Of my £1,950 programme fee (for a twelve week placement) I was assured that nearly half would go directly to the project itself – in this case two orphanages in Mwanza, northern Tanzania – with the remainder covering my accommodation, language training week in Dar es Salaam and the company’s own costs to keep the programme running. During my stay VA sent a health advisor to talk to us about avoiding malaria as well as two trustees to purchase essential items for the volunteer compound, so I felt my money was in responsible hands. And, importantly, as a lone female traveller with worried parents sitting at home biting their nails down to the stubs over my safety, it certainly seemed wise to go with a reputable company who could provide such a service.

But after spending a few months in Africa I have come to realise you don’t have to pay the earth for your placement. If money is no issue and you are happy to use a reputable company that charges a fortune but promises a first-rate service then that is, of course, up to you. But if money is a real sticking point and you are prepared to put in a little more effort and take a chance, waiting until you are in your country of choice before searching for a placement may well mean you spend significantly less and find something just as rewarding.

On my travels through both Tanzania and Kenya I have heard, through word-of-mouth, of many small institutions – both schools and orphanages – that are desperate for volunteers but lack the means to advertise for them. Often, they are more than happy to offer free accommodation in exchange for whatever service can be offered, meaning volunteers don’t need to spend a penny other than to cover their own living costs. Admittedly they cannot provide the ‘support’ that is offered by the larger agencies (though if you have fully comprehensive travel and health insurance you shouldn’t really need it) but you do get to hang on to your money and spend it when you see an urgent need, at the source and on your own terms.

Beware those companies who charge a fee to find you a placement but don’t actually give any of your money to the projects in question. Rarely do they throw up anything that you couldn’t have found yourself through more extensive research, so whilst for cash-rich, time poor people they can offer a viable solution, they can also make those less financially blessed souls feel frustrated and, to some extent, conned out of their money. When I reached the Imani Agape orphanage in Kisii, western Kenya – a placement found for me by 2Way Development which charges a fee of £850 – I was sad to realise just how much difference my £850 would have made to the project itself, but after paying the fee to the organisation I had comparitively little to spare. Had I contacted the orphanage directly, I later found out, I would have been offered accommodation entirely free of charge.

The bottom line is this. Everyone is different, with different requirements and expectations of volunteering abroad. But before you commit yourself to a volunteer placement make sure you do two things. Firstly, read the small print to see exactly where your money is going, and secondly, set your budget and stick to it. Don’t be shoe-horned into paying more than you can afford as you will only regret it later. The important thing to remember is that whether your budget is big or small, there is an option out there to suit you.

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This photo was taken on my first volunteering placement in Mwanza, Tanzania, in 2007. I have such happy memories of these children and their happy, smiling faces. I often wonder where they are now, and hope that they’re happy.