Recognising the power of youth volunteerism

Youth volunteers might just be the superheroes we need to change the world. Photo  courtesy Sataish Rampersad
Youth volunteers might just be the superheroes we need to change the world. Photo courtesy Sataish Rampersad


Sixteen years ago, I attended a cultural studies workshop for postgraduate students in Bhubaneswar, India. There I met Sujit, a vibrant student who was involved in various forms of protests against social inequity at his university.

During one of our many long conversations, he told me about his plan to build a library in his Odisha, that would be accessible to everyone, regardless of caste and class distinctions. This library would be built by volunteers; it would be run by volunteers; and it would reach out to children from disadvantaged backgrounds –those from lower castes and from slum areas.

Three years later, this library was up and running. Sujit had mobilised more than 1,000 volunteers to establish the Bakul Foundation Children’s Library. Today, this library is recognised as one of the best children’s libraries in India, both for its and child-centric environment and for its programmes for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is run entirely by volunteers!

Sujit’s beliefs in the power of volunteerism stayed with me. Every time I spoke to him, he would tell me of these amazing programmes that Bakul volunteers had conceptualised; of the satellite libraries they had set up; the beautification projects they completed; and the projects aimed at teaching children to care for the environment. Keeping track of Bakul’s accomplishments over the years and seeing what could be accomplished through volunteerism convinced me that this was the best way to influence change – especially in TT where funding for NGOs is highly dependent on who you are and who you know.

Thus, when I started Support Autism T&T, I knew that this NGO would be based on the concept of volunteerism. Initially, the volunteers were my close friends and family, the people who shared my vision and had my back. The very first youth volunteers were my nieces and nephews. Then they brought their close friends and those close friends brought their close friends and today Support Autism T&T has approximately 350 youth volunteers, with more youths waiting to complete our 2022 Volunteer Training sessions.

The NGO has successfully completed numerous activities and events, fundraisers, community outreach projects, and assisted the special needs community in so many ways, all because of the commitments of our volunteers. The benefits of volunteering are immeasurable to everyone but most importantly, it gives us an opportunity to take an active part in effecting positive changes in the world in which we live. It allows us to take responsibility for creating a world that we want.

Don't underestimate the power of youth volunteerism in the creation of an inclusive TT.
Photo courtesy Sataish Rampersad

This is especially important when we think about our younger generations for, they should be given the opportunity to play a significant role in creating the future that they would want to live in. This year’s theme for International Volunteer Day is “Volunteer now for our common future” – indeed, the future is theirs, but it is the responsibility of leaders today and older generations, to create opportunities for our youths to become responsible, active change-makers and volunteerism can accomplish this.

The first step to encouraging young people to change the world is in believing that young people can change the world. The second step is to get out of their way. You see, in TT, leaders and older generations don’t allow youths a safe space to express their thoughts, to develop their ideas or to become involved in social change. Too many believe that "children must be seen but not heard" – one of the biggest misconceptions that exist, if we are to create leaders rather than followers.

Instead, we should provide forums where younger generations can share their ideas and more importantly, develop projects where we can help them shape and execute their ideas which will effect positive changes in our society. More NGOs should encourage youth volunteerism; encourage young people to volunteer without having to pay membership fees because volunteerism shouldn’t come at a cost. Government can also play an active role by incorporating volunteerism into the education system and as a key area of youth development.

Maybe the Ministry of Youth Development and National Service will initiate a national policy on youth volunteerism?

In the words of Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General, “If our hopes of building a better and safer world are to become more than wishful thinking, we will need the engagement of volunteers more than ever.”

Thank you to the volunteers at Support Autism T&T and to all other volunteers in TT.

Dr Radica Mahase is the founder/director of Support Autism T&T


"Recognising the power of youth volunteerism"

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