Volunteers at Work
EVERY Friday afternoon Sirley, a middle-aged teacher in Brazil, turns her living room into a classroom. About two o’clock, Amélia, one of the students, arrives. She does not miss a single lesson and is already reading better than many youngsters in high school. Amélia is 82 years old.
Amélia is following in the steps of the more than 60 senior citizens who have graduated from the free literacy classes that Sirley is conducting in her hometown. Recently, Sirley’s volunteer work was featured in the Brazilian newspaper Jornal do Sudoeste. After noting that she has made “a huge contribution to community life,” the newspaper article said that Sirley’s method of teaching the elderly is so effective that “after just 120 hours of classes, they are writing letters, reading newspapers, and coping with numbers and other day-to-day tasks.” The textbook that Sirley uses, adds the article, is the booklet Learn to Read and Write, prepared by Jehovah’s Witnesses. *
From Feeling Embarrassed to Living With Dignity
Another of Sirley’s students, 68-year-old Dona Luzia, relates that before learning to read and write, she was ashamed to talk to others. Even shopping used to be a challenge. “Now I write letters to my relatives in other towns, and I manage my own money. No one shortchanges me anymore,” she says with a smile. Maria, also 68 years of age, recalls how she used to feel embarrassed to sign her pension check with a thumbprint. “I felt like an invalid,” she says. But thanks to the literacy classes, Maria now happily writes her own signature.
Praise from students and graduates has made Sirley’s free program so popular that her living room is getting overcrowded. Soon the class will move to a roomier location.
An Award-Winning Program
Sirley is one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. No doubt you are familiar with the Bible education work that Jehovah’s Witnesses perform as a voluntary service. However, Sirley’s success is not unique. Literacy classes conducted in hundreds of Kingdom Halls throughout Brazil have already helped more than 22,000 people in that country to learn to read and write.
Similar programs of Jehovah’s Witnesses have yielded success in other parts of the world. In the African country of Burundi, for example, the National Office for Adult Literacy (a department of the Ministry of Education) was so pleased with the results of the Witnesses’ literacy program that it gave an award to four of the program’s teachers for “the hard work put into teaching others to read.” Government officials are especially impressed that 75 percent of those who learned to read and write were adult women—a group that usually shies away from attending such programs.
In Mozambique, 4,000 students are enrolled in the Witnesses’ literacy classes, and more than 5,000 students have learned to read and write over the past four years. One former student wrote: “I would like to express my sincere appreciation. Thanks to the school, I can read and write.”
Relief Aid That Is “Practical Rather Than Formal”
Relief work is another form of voluntary service performed by Jehovah’s Witnesses. Not long ago a warehouse near Paris, France, was a beehive of activity. Some 400 volunteers spent their weekend filling cartons with food, clothing, and medicine. By the end of the weekend, nine large containers full of relief supplies worth nearly $1 million (U.S.) were ready to be shipped. Soon thereafter, the shipment arrived in war-torn Central Africa, where local Witness volunteers swiftly distributed the supplies. Most of the supplies were donated by Witnesses as well.
One newspaper in Congo (Kinshasa) praised the humanitarian work of Jehovah’s Witnesses as “practical rather than formal.” Officials of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have likewise expressed their support. One UNHCR official in the Democratic Republic of Congo was so pleased with the orderliness of the relief efforts carried out by the Witnesses that she put her vehicle at the disposal of the volunteers. Local people are also impressed. When onlookers noticed how swiftly relief supplies reached all in need, some asked in wonderment: “How are you organized to be able to reach everyone?”
The relief efforts by Jehovah’s Witnesses and their literacy programs are just two examples of the services that Witnesses have been performing around the world for decades. However, the Witnesses are also involved in another form of volunteer work—a service that makes a truly long-lasting difference. The next article will consider this.
^ par. 3 The booklet Learn to Read and Write (available in 6 languages) and the more recent booklet Apply Yourself to Reading and Writing (available in 29 languages) are published by Jehovah’s Witnesses. For a free copy, contact your local Kingdom Hall or the publishers of this magazine.
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The Changing World of Volunteerism
While Julie crisscrosses the globe on business trips, she manages to squeeze in some volunteer work—a few hours here and a day there. Recently while in South America, she spent an afternoon helping out in an orphanage near Santiago, Chile. She says that traveling opens up “great options” in volunteering.
Like Julie, a growing number of volunteers are giving time—but in ever smaller portions. “It’s a new trend,” says Sara Meléndez, president of a research group that compiles statistics on volunteer work. “People are volunteering, but when they do, it’s more of a one-shot deal.” As a consequence, organizers are feeling the pinch of what some decry as “volunteering lite,” and they are struggling to staff their programs.
Some organizers feel that this new trend—giving smaller amounts of volunteer time—is caused by a change in the attitude of volunteers. “The ‘I’m here as long as you need me’ type of volunteering is dead,” says Susan Ellis, a consultant for volunteer groups. “People don’t make commitments.” Journalist Eileen Daspin concurs. After interviewing several directors of volunteer groups about the shortage of volunteers, she concluded that “volunteerism is experiencing a severe case of commitment phobia.”
However, the director of New York Cares, Kathleen Behrens, mentioned earlier in this series, feels that those who are volunteering on the run do so, not because they lack commitment, but because they lack time. People who are juggling a 50-hour-plus workweek with care for children or for elderly parents simply cannot volunteer on a regular basis. “Yet, the very fact that these busy people still make community service a part of their life,” she says, “shows that their commitment is actually very strong.”
For such time-challenged volunteers, says Behrens, “flexible volunteering” is the answer. Many volunteer organizations now even offer one-day-only projects. “This allows people to volunteer in meaningful ways but to have the flexibility they need to do it on a semi-regular basis.”
Also, a growing number of people are volunteering from their computer at home, doing data entry and research. “Online volunteering,” notes The Wall Street Journal, “is perhaps the most unusual, and some say most promising, of what has come to be called ‘flexible volunteering.’”
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To the Rescue in Kobe!
When an earthquake struck the thriving port city of Kobe, Japan, in January 1995, the devastation was overwhelming. With over 5,000 casualties, it was the deadliest quake to hit Japan since 1923. Jehovah’s Witnesses in Japan and around the world immediately set about providing relief for victims. When a relief fund was established, over a million dollars was contributed in three business days. Relief supplies of all sorts came flooding into Kobe.
One Christian elder involved in the relief work found that his Kingdom Hall was soon stocked with more supplies than could be used. What was to be done with it all? He suggested donating some supplies to a nearby hospital. The Witnesses filled up a van and made their way through the debris. The trip took hours instead of the usual few minutes. At the hospital, they offered the head doctor their supplies—including blankets, mattresses, diapers, fresh fruit, and over-the-counter medicines. Delighted, the doctor said that the hospital would gladly accept anything the Witnesses could give. The fruit was especially welcome, as there was not enough fresh food for all the patients.
As the Witnesses unloaded the supplies, the doctor stood there quietly watching—despite the urgency of his work. Then he humbly bowed and thanked them. As they drove away, he continued standing there to show how thankful he was. The elder involved noted that this same hospital later became very cooperative with patients who are Jehovah’s Witnesses.
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Volunteer Work—A Power for Good
When a group of volunteers in Kabezi, a small community in Burundi, wanted to build a Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the local administrator made an unusual request. He asked if the Witnesses could fix the road passing by the proposed construction site. The Witnesses happily agreed to repair the damaged roadway, doing all the work by hand. The volunteers did the job so well that local officials expressed appreciation for their hard work and willing spirit. Afterward, the volunteers went on to build their Kingdom Hall, pictured above. Now they have a beautiful building that will help to promote Bible education for years to come. Indeed, volunteer work in its many forms can have far-reaching benefits.
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Sirley finds satisfaction in teaching others to read
Nelson P. Duarte-Jornal do Sudoeste