Crates of toys, dolls, chocolates, flowers and other goodies are piled high on the floor. Next to them stands Mickey Mouse. Young people mill around, their arms full of colouring books and crayons. They talk among themselves, checking the clock every now and again. The mood is upbeat and soon the youths get the signal that it is time to get into line, ready to go.
They are not about to surprise a child on his birthday, nor are they taking part in some character parade. This group of young Emirati boys and girls are volunteers who’ve come to Dubai Hospital’s paediatric ward where they’ll meet children suffering from chronic and terminal illnesses.
But the group works hard to ensure this is not a sombre occasion – they are here to put a smile on every child’s face.
“I’ve done this many times,” Mohammad Abdul Sulaiman, from Abu Dhabi, says. “But it’s important to make their life a little better than what it is now.” Mohammad, 17, is a volunteer with Takatof, a social programme established by the Emirates Foundation for Youth Development in 2007.
“Takatof mobilises people and resources across the nation to find creative and sustainable solutions for community requirements,” explains Mohammad Al Abbasi, senior project lead for the foundation. “It offers young people opportunities to volunteer for humanitarian, social and community programmes.”
Right now, Mickey Mouse and the other volunteers are descending on the children’s ward. They take care to make sure nobody minds the intrusion before handing out gifts to the patients’ delight. They pass out the books, crayons and sketch pens to children who want to express themselves creatively. Many of the volunteers offer to sit with them and help. Small groups take shape as the volunteers form bonds with the children. The children are too ill to laugh and squeal like healthy children would when presented with such an opportunity, but the look of pleasure on their faces as they gently touch the flowers, caress the dolls and draw broad colourful strokes on the books presented to them says it all.
A couple of hours later both volunteers and patients are still huddled together. This carries on way beyond the time allotted to them, until Al Abbasi has to go and gently remind them that there are patients in other wards to visit. Reluctant goodbyes are said, as the troop of volunteers moves on.
“It’s a welcome change when we have such a lot of activity here,” says Ramon, who’s daughter Flor suffers from a kidney ailment that requires her to undergo dialysis every fortnight. Although she’s confined to bed, seven-year-old Flor clutches the big rag doll she’s been given very tightly.
Some of the children cringe when confronted by a gaggle of volunteers, but quick reassurances from the teenagers soon have them smiling and participating.
Al Abbasi can’t stop grinning. “It gives me an immense sense of satisfaction when I see the effect such projects have on the people they are intended for,” he says. “When we go and renovate or repair the houses of needy families, it is much more than just volunteering. The feeling you get when a home is made habitable again, and the family goes back in, thankful and joyous, is indescribable.”
Takatof’s Makeover Stars project involves helping to maintain and renovate the homes of disadvantaged families. Volunteers also service buildings such as schools, hospitals and special needs centres. They paint, clean, cultivate gardens, change furniture and add aesthetic touches to improve the properties.
The idea, says Al Abbasi, is to put the more privileged sections of society in touch with the less fortunate and induce a sense of community among them.
To that end there are the Takatof University Volunteering Clubs that promote social volunteerism, and develop student initiatives while involving students in charity initiatives to serve the community. With Takatof’s support and guidance, the clubs manage, plan and implement social service programmes.
Club members can also help organise many activities and public events held across the UAE. “We offer participation in national, educational, sports and social events, conferences and environmental activities that will develop the volunteers’ leadership skills, and increase their self-awareness,” says Al Abbasi.
Another venture, the Al Khoi Project, is a joint initiative between Takatof and Zayed House for Family Care (Dar Zayed), run by the Zayed Higher Organisation for Humanitarian Care and Special Needs. Takatof volunteers help children from Zayed House for Family Care integrate by initiating them into cultural, social, recreational and sports activities, creating a suitably friendly environment for learning, exchanging experiences and spending leisure time productively.
Inspired by the experience
With so much going for it, it’s easy to see why teenagers like Mohammad are so enthusiastic about volunteering. In many cases, it has opened up the life of the volunteers in areas they never expected. Mohammad, who befriends the terminally ill kids easily, says he’s discovered a passion for helping people that has helped him decide on his future career.
“I’ve been volunteering for a year now,” he says. “I go and talk to lonely older people to keepthem company, bring them gifts, and we try to arrange celebrations for the destitute. I feel happy when I help make unfortunate people happy.”
Mohammad appears to have set an example – many of his friends have come forward to volunteer. “Now, I’d like to devote my life to helping people in need,” he says. “And for that I feel joining the police force would be the best way. The police are there to help the people, and I’d be able to do it every day.”
Another volunteer, Fatima Abdullah, 16, has been volunteering along with her twin brother since 2009, encouraged by her mother. “She motivated me to volunteer for Takatof,” says Fatima. “I’ve volunteered for a lot of events.
I go to hospitals... wherever they want us to.
We meet up with lonely elderly people, visit them at their homes, visit terminally ill children in hospital wards... it feels fantastic to be able to do something for them.”
Fatima feels this has made a big difference in her life. “Now I feel proud of myself,” she says. “This volunteering has also changed my life in another sense. I’ve discovered that I want to be a doctor. This is a good training ground for me as I am in and out of hospitals for my volunteering. Actually, if I had not volunteered with Takatof I might not have chosen to become a doctor. I would have been too afraid of the hospital atmosphere.”
It is a measure of Takatof’s success that its volunteer base now stands at 26,000. “We have different categories of volunteers – from school, college and university students, to CEOs and directors of companies, as well as engineers and doctors,” says Al Abbasi. “We have a list of female and male volunteers and we match them up with volunteering activities that they desire and are fit for.”
Al Abbasi manages the different regional leads in the seven emirates, and assigns suitable volunteers for different events and activities. “We are developing different kinds of volunteering projects and also volunteers for government entities for their events,” he says.
Takatof’s list of activities, includes international ventures and environmental projects, such as desert-cleaning campaigns and beach-cleaning campaigns, Al Abbasi says. “We have projects for many categories. The idea is to serve up as many opportunities as possible for every class of citizen to volunteer, to serve the community.”
Volunteering with Takatof is easy. “You can register on the Takatof website as a volunteer and then choose the events you want to volunteer for, which are suitable for you and match your qualifications,” says Al Abbasi.
Residents of all nationalities are welcome to volunteer.
The Takatof call-centre team will then contact the volunteers with orientation details and similar information.
The team will coordinate with the volunteers, matching them up with events, supplying them with details of the events, location and contact people.
Shining examples of change
Bringing about a positive change in people is what inspires Al Abbasi. “It’s wonderful to see the volunteers grow up in front of me,” he says. “I’ve known many of them from the time they registered as volunteers. Within a year I have seen them develop into totally different people. They become very helpful, confident and reveal a humane side that they’ve been in touch with through volunteering.
“They become more well-rounded individuals and realise hidden aspects to their personality that have even resulted in some of them changing their careers.”
Al Abbasi feels Takatof’s programmes have made a positive impact on the community. “It encourages the youth volunteers to be a shining example of change,” he says. “Our international volunteering opportunities also provide great opportunities for our youth, in addition to creating awareness about our country abroad.
“We have a project in Korea coming up at which our Emirati volunteers will represent the UAE as cultural ambassadors at Expo 2012 in Yeosu, as we did last year in Shanghai when we sent 100 volunteers to the UAE pavilion.
“They act as ambassadors by interacting with visitors, answering their questions about the country, its culture and traditions.”
However, it all boils down to feeling good while doing good. “It makes me feel very positive about our projects,” says Al Abbasi.
“It is also important from the volunteers’ point of view because it gives them a chance to do some good and puts them in touch with the less fortunate."
“It puts us in touch with our human side which we may forget in the daily grind of life.
“When we visit the patients in hospitals and special needs children in schools we find what’s been missing in our lives – a window into the world of the less fortunate, how they live and suffer – and it brings a special glow to see how you can alleviate their suffering at least a little.”