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As funds dry up, what will volunteers do?

Published:Wednesday | February 24, 2010 | 2:00 AM

Dennie Quill, Contributor

As the charitable dollar disappears, volunteer organisations are challenged to remain relevant in the communities in which they operate. Traditionally, the focus of well-established charities has been on the most vulnerable in society - the disabled, elderly and children. Others have sought to place issues such as the environment and justice at the centre of people's consciousness.

We know that it takes cash to care and the ever-worsening economy will no doubt increase the demand for social services. Without funding, however, the volunteer sector could be hampered in its efforts to reach those in need of help.

No one has ever quantified the value of the national contribution made by the volunteer sector in dollars-and-cents terms. Jamaica is blessed in having an army of volunteers whose work range from advocacy to disaster relief. It is a fact that grass-roots efforts and the intervention of civic and non-governmental organisations have helped to provide the glue that binds our society together.

New approach needed

In the current economic climate when corporations are cutting back on aid, there is no doubt that there has to be a new approach to volunteerism, focusing more on human resources, time and talent, rather than on cash donations. I believe there are scores of persons, including retired teachers, nurses, policemen and other professionals, who could be persuaded to share their vast knowledge and experience with the rest of society. In other words, there are myriad ways in which the contribution of volunteers can be expanded even if there is no cash injection. I shall cite three areas.

The first area I would like to see greater input from volunteers is in law enforcement. I believe there are areas in which volunteers could help to lighten the workload of the police officer. This has nothing to do with policing, rather clerical matters which, if undertaken by volunteers, could free up officers to do more patrols and ramp up investigations into crimes. One can see retired detectives poring over the files of 'cold' cases to determine if any clues were overlooked.

I cannot help recalling an experience I had several years ago, when I accompanied a relative to a police station where she was reporting an incident of domestic violence. The young constable who took the statement was hopeless. He did not know how to spell simple words and he had a hard time comprehending the details being communicated to him.

What should have been done in 30 minutes took almost two hours and he was obviously uncomfortable performing this task. In the end, spelling errors had to be corrected. I don't believe he is a rare bird in the Jamaica Constabulary Force. Anyone could have done a better job. There are scores of retired policemen and others who could offer clerical support to the police.

Health sector could benefit

The health sector is another area which could benefit from an expanded role for volunteers. Already some hospitals have 'friends' that provide support. However, I am thinking about a defined role for volunteers that would enrich the health-care experience for both patients and family members. I have seen examples of volunteers running entire sections at hospitals, particularly in areas such as hospitality, whereby they make sure relatives of patients are comfortable and provide them with regular updates and necessary information.

The third sector which I believe would gain tremendously is the education sector, with the volunteer forming a bridge between schools and communities. I envisage that competent volunteers could be pressed into service and assist in homework or remedial reading, or other after-school activities. Volunteers could become mentors and assist in extra-curricular activities. I believe a concerted effort to recruit volunteers in the schools could contribute to slashing the dropout rate in schools. It could increase the education and career success of students, especially of those in the inner city.

I know that workers in these sectors may resent these suggestions, fearing that they may be replaced and find themselves out of work. However, this is not the intention. This is about a small country struggling to survive and how it garners all the available human resources to ensure a better life for the majority.

Dennie Quill is a veteran journalist. Feedback may be sent to columns@gleanerjm.com.