Let me tell you a story of a young girl I know called Racheal Monica Achen. Currently 21 years, Achen is brilliant and everyone who has interacted with her admires her confidence.
While still at high school less than five years ago, Achen used to engage in a lot of volunteer community activities during her free time that included youth camps and peer learning session.
With these, she learnt how to address issues affecting her peers like drug and substance abuse, relationships, how to overcome body change stages during puberty, HIV and picked up a few skills along the way; public speaking, communication and leadership.
Today, Achen is part of a team that came up with an innovation called Safepal. Packaged as a mobile and web-based application, this creative intervention is helping victims of sexual violence to access help from authorities.
The app was developed during the first-ever hackathon in Uganda organized by United Nations Population Fund under the Government of Uganda and United Nations Population Fund 8th country programme with support from MIT and Sana Mobile.
Currently, Achen at only 21 years, serves as the youngest member of the advisory board of Reach A Hand Uganda, is a peer educator and youth advocate volunteering at the United Nations Population Fund.
The growth and experience that Achen has taped against her name is an opportunity available to over 250 young people under Reach A Hand Uganda’s Peer Educator volunteer program.
By participating in different charity activities in diverse communities across Uganda, these young people continue to support their peers to access information on; sexuality, HIV/AIDS, human reproduction, healthy relationships, menstrual hygiene management, gender-based sexual violence, protection against societal vices such as child marriage and access to livelihood skills development opportunities.
Volunteering is a way to gain various skills such as confidence, communication, time management, problem-solving and adaptability, responsibility, teamwork and innovation, that can be transferred into a workplace and furthermore demonstrate one’s capability to take on different tasks and stand out while meeting and networking with different people. .
While the benefits of volunteering are clear, there is a worrying trend that the people who could benefit most from giving their time are precisely those least likely to be involved.
Volunteering is not limited to young people alone, however for older people, the barriers to volunteering can include; competing priorities such as family, employment and business obligations in addition to poor health, inadequate interpersonal and communication skills.
Younger people (who I interact with on a daily) can be deterred by feeling they don’t have the time to volunteer, or not knowing anyone else who volunteers. Young people, interestingly, also think volunteering is meant for older people with time on their hands. Volunteering has an image problem – particularly with men and younger people who seek no immediate benefit. This, as exhibited in Achen’s success story above, speaks differently.
I have met young people who have gained work experience while at the university and high school having undergone volunteer programs championed by organizations/initiatives like 40 days over 40 Smiles Foundation, Uganda Red Cross Society, Rotaract, Educate! UN volunteer programme and the Uganda Scouts Association.
These teenagers and young people have transformed communities where they serve by doing social good which has enabled them gain an edge over their peers when it comes to employment opportunities in Uganda and beyond.
There are lots of service projects available to teens locally, state-wide, nationally and even internationally. Although volunteering can sometimes be a part of high school graduation requirements and meeting scholarship needs, it needs to be instilled in teens as a value that is truly appreciated and pursued with passion.
We, therefore, have to encourage young people to become volunteers in their communities to contribute to the enormous impact on the health and well-being of societies worldwide, which will allow us to thrive as a whole. There are many volunteer programs in the country and you never know, it could be the stepping stone to your dream job.
The writer is founder and team leader of Reach A Hand Uganda.