The Editorial Team at TBL recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Ms. Zoya Altaf, a full time PR and Communications professional. We are thankful to her for taking time out of her busy schedule and sharing with us her thoughts about the importance of volunteering and the impact it has had in her life.
1. When did you actually get involved in volunteering?
ZA: I started volunteering back during high school. It was part of our curriculum that we were to complete a certain number of hours doing community service’. I remember going to an institute that focused on the rehabilitation of the blind and deaf. The aim of that exercise was to interact with these people, and share with them real life stories of the outside. We were working towards a mindset where they would lose their fear or to some extent, lower their inhibitions when being faced with becoming active members of society. As you know, there is a personalized stigma attached to being physically handicapped in South Asia today and we wanted to alleviate that. This was when I was 17 years old. What I didn’t wholly realize then, but I do now, is that that experience gave me the insight that I needed – I knew that whenever I could manage the time, I would invest it in volunteering.
2. What other volunteering projects have you been involved in, recently and in the past?
ZA: I volunteered for a time at Aga Khan University Hospital too, where we personally addressed patients’ problems, and brainstormed ways on how the entire treatment procedure, from consultation to diagnosis to remedy, could be expedited. This exercise again, was based around having the patients ‘informed’ about the due processes, educating them, And building their confidence.
Most recently, I have become part of the ‘Rahbar’ programme, initiated by The Citizen’s Foundation. It is a mentorship strategy that has professionals volunteer to mentor a class of 12-15 year olds, which as we all know, is a very impressionable age, in terms of character development as well as setting a course – career wise. Establishing a course today, so that it can lead to a better future tomorrow is not an impromptu exercise; we all have to adhere to a preset curriculum that is tailor-made to address some of the children?s basic concerns.
3. How would you define an average day of your volunteering session at Rahbar programme?
ZA: As most of us volunteers are working in our jobs all week long, the Rahbar programme is operational over weekends. Particularly on Saturdays, starting from 9 am to 2 pm., Rahbar volunteers reach a designated location to be picked up by TCF vans ( TCF providesthe logistical support). Some of these TCF campuses are relatively far off so it takes a long commute.
Upon reaching at the designated location, volunteers are briefed by a coordinator who then assigns you a certain class to take care of. One thing that I find duly impressive is how TCF manages to vest our interests. Rahbar is a 7-week course and we aren’t shuffled around every few weeks. We are made to stick with the same group of kids. Over time, this really helps in building a connection with these kids. Our weekly interactions have never been a chore, but soon they became a privilege.
4. How has this association impacted your life?
ZA: Life becomes different. Once you are associated with such programme you realize your importance in some people’s life as a person who has to act responsibly, as these people will look up to you as a role model. These children anticipate your arrival and you in turn would want to go the extra mile in making yourself available. Volunteering is a conscious activity that hardly ever has any contractual obligation attached (or any financial motivation). But TCF manages to make us feel personally accountable. It has always been a really beautiful association and at a certain point it matters the most because it is just about the kids and me, the expectations they have of me are a duty that I personally owe to them. I have been ZoyaBaji for way longer than I was Ms. Zoya. I came out of the experience having gained way more than I could ever hope to impart, that?s for sure.
What were some of the hurdles, if any, that you faced during your volunteering?
ZA: Living in Karachi, everyone is aware of the security situation and lack thereof. I do have a lot of people in my life who voice their concerns with what activities I choose to partake in during the weekends. An individual woman, that too commuting to and fro from ‘volatile’ areas is reasonable cause for genuine concern, but you have to realize that I am a big advocate of self-sufficiency. I believe that all growth takes place outside your comfort zone and taking out time to venture out into the unfamiliar is the best investment that a person can make towards their personal self-growth.
Volunteering is just another avenue by which a person can achieve this. We all work, we have studied, we have families and friends, all activities that we partake in for some benefit or the other, for instance, working long hours for a paycheck, studying hard so that you could manage to get that job in the first place, giving time to your family and friends because relationships are important. Volunteering for me has been one way, apart from everything I’ve stated so far that has just been by me, for me. It helped me really understand the essence of life; of one’s greater understanding and purpose in the world around; a unique pride vested in the virtue of community.
So when I compare the opportunity to catch up on my sleep on the weekend after long hours at work and university, to commuting and volunteering, I end up choosing the option that helps me grow as an individual.
6. Is there more that can be done to facilitate generous people like you to do more for their community?
ZA: I wouldn’t be able to say a lot more on the topic considering that I myself am very forthcoming. Whenever I felt like volunteering, I made an effort to go out and find opportunities to do so. I realize that not a lot of people, if not specifically mandated to, would ever avail those prospects. In that regard, maybe if there was a channel through which people could sign up or register with, that would match them for a volunteering effort best suited to their needs – that would be great.
Like every hierarchy, NGO’s too need help in sustaining every department. Sure, places like Aman Foundation and others have the means to advertise their needs and gather skilled volunteers to that effect, but majority of charitable organizations don’t possess those kind of finances. A database, or a directory of sorts that could expedite this entire process for people at large would be a real blessing. If they were to regulate and notify the public of the demands of the NGO’s, a massive gap will be effectively bridged.
7. There?s a difference between referral and advice. What is the advice that you would like to give to potential volunteers when they go volunteering?
ZA: First is, please do not be sympathetic. The people who you work with are counting on your empathy and not your sympathy. It is extremely important that you are considerate of them, their backgrounds, their limited knowledge or anything pertaining to their circumstantial situations.
Secondly – confidentiality. That is so important in building a relationship. If someone is coming up to you and trusting you by confiding so much of their life instances, you owe that information respect. You owe the person respect.
Going on, I want to mention the importance of everyday etiquette. Punctuality, personal conduct, all of which is covered in what we call in our line of work as Best Practices – they all need to be adhered to. Just because you’re volunteering, please do not underestimate the role that you are stepping into. You are being looked up to. You are influencing someone’s life – the life of an impressionable teenager, who is counting on your modeled behavior to someday emulate and address his or her concerns. Respect yourself and respect them. It is extremely important.
Even if there’s something inherently wrong with you and you can’t seem to behave yourself, you best be on your best behavior when you go and volunteer!