From left: Lola Lopez, C.P. Mathew, Ayesha Kelaif, Nadia Al Sayegh and Jijie Zablan. Image Credit: XPRESS Archives

Dubai: There are more Good Samaritans in the UAE than we can hazard a guess. Someone, somewhere out there is making a difference even as we speak. Not surprisingly, when we set out to shortlist five XPRESS HEROES to mark our fifth anniversary, the task was not just difficult, it seemed unfair.

By focusing on the men and women featured below, we don't mean to exclude the rest. Like them, every do-gooder, however small, has his place under the sun.

We salute them because they put community before self and service before subsistence. Their innovative ideas not only find takers, they make the UAE a better place to be in. Meet the fab five:

Rebel with a cause
Lola Lopez
Founder, Volunteer in UAE

Volunteering in the UAE has rendered Lola Lopez homeless twice, wiped out her savings and forced her to share rooms with domestic help. Yet, she finds nothing more rewarding than what she does.

"It's is a conscious choice," says the 37-year-old Anglo-Spanish full-time volunteer who has founded the non-profit NGO Volunteer in Dubai which has now grown into Volunteer in UAE. It's not that she can't take up a job - a proficient event manager with Formula 1 experience and a former Emirates airline staffer, she is inundated with offers. But she prefers to harness her energies for a worthier cause.

The rebel in Lopez still recalls her unlikely initiation into volunteering. A naughty 15-year-old who refused to pay heed to warnings in a Physics class, she said she was finally given an ultimatum by her school: get expelled or do voluntary work. "I opted for the latter and was thrown into a stifling van where I had put up with the smell of food and go round town to distribute meals to the elderly."

But clearly, the experience left a lasting taste.

Today, she is full of volunteering ideas that are making a difference. Funday Sunday, Aid in Motion, Hair for Hope, Summit of Silence, Braille Books for the Blind, Karama Kanteen, Pink Book Sale, Care for Cancer, Operation Ozone, Helping Hands, Colour 4 A Cause - Lopez has spearheaded a host of campaigns since VID's inception in 2009. Between November 2010 and November 2011 alone, she mobilised 4, 673 volunteers who clocked 41,357 hours of voluntary work in 572 events orgainsed in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. But if there's one thing that ticks her off, it's the blatant exploitation of students and volunteers by corporates to save money.

Compassionate heart
Ayesha Kelaif
Founder, Dubai Animal and Rescue Centre

For someone who lost both her parents to cancer at a young age, Ayesha Kelaif grew up before her time. With sudden responsibility thrust on her, she turned to animals for comfort.

"Their unconditional love kept me grounded and taught me a valuable lesson in life: compassion no matter how big or small is the greatest act of kindness," said the 47-year-old Emirati who rescues not just cats and dogs but also a variety exotic animals.

A one-month-old fox that strayed into a well-known supermarket at Umm Suqeim, a blue gold macaw found in a parking lot in Shaikh Zayed Road, four Peruvian Alpacas left in the scorching desert sun in Al Ain, a minky monkey jumping from house to house in Jumeirah - these are some of the ?? creatures that Ayesha has rescued over the past 12 years.

Her home which has turned to an animal sanctuary is dedicated to the rescue, treatment and care of lost, abandoned and injured animals. While some of them stay with her or are re-homed, (?????????? Barsha into an animal sanctuary, she keeps the animals she can?????) - there are currently 280 of them - finds homes for the others and sends the exotics back to the wild with the help of wildlife centres in Abu Dhabi and Sharjah.

DARC is a non-profit organisation with the bulk of funding coming from my own pocket. I work a full time job and most of my money goes towards my animals. Given their number and the fact that many of them come in sick, we have huge vet bills to pay, so we take part in flea markets and sell calendars to raise funds. We also have individuals who donate food to the centre and volunteers who come in everyday to maintain the place."

"The biggest challenge facing us today is the lack of space and our hope is to obtain a bigger piece of land from the government," she added.

Silent footsoldier
C.P. Mathew
President, Valley of Love

C.P. Mathew has no qualms saying he lives off his wife. A full-time volunteer, the Indian expat has little time for a job. For government departments and the needy alike, the NGO Valley of Love which he founded is often the first port of call for help. Its members are invariably there, conspicuously working from behind the scenes.

Footsoldiers all, Mathew's core group 16 volunteers have taken it upon themselves to ease the burden of the disadvantaged in many ways. From catering to requirements of hospital patients and jail inmates to facilitating families in completing death formalities and repatriation, their 90-plus network is quick to swing into action. Unclaimed bodies, missing persons, needy patients, prisoners in a jam - their efforts have helped resolve many crises.

"When my father passed away in 1996, my brother and I had a tough time taking the body back to India. There were so many offices to go to and so much paperwork to be done that it took us more than three days. That's when we realised the need for a mechanism to help others in similar situations," said Mathew who came to Dubai in 1987.

The years 2003 and 2007 were a turning point for Valley of Love as its services were put to full use during the Amnesty period. "This was also the time when we grew as organisation as a lot of people joined us to pitch in and help out with the exit of illegals. Many of them were sick, old, homeless and penniless," he said.

Over the years, Mathew feels there has been a shift in the nature of crises affecting expats. "The issue earlier was that of illegal migrants, site accidents and blue-collar workers needing medical or financial help. Today, we are seeing more problems in the middle class with loan defaults and suicides becoming common. Unfortunately, we do not have an easy mechanism to address this," he said, though hoping for a solution soon.

Guardian angel
Nadia Al Sayegh
Founder, Senses Residential Care Home For Children With Special Needs

Their parents are dead, sick, unknown, abusive or financially incapable of looking after them. But some 46 special needs children, including 21 orphans, find hope in Dubai - thanks to Nadia Al Sayegh, a 47-year-old Emirati who took them under her wing and set up the region's first residential home for their ilk.

It was almost as if she was ordained to take up the noble cause. A former official with the Ministry of Social Affairs, she regularly came across such cases during her rounds. "I could see clearly that there was a need for a dedicated centre to provide special care, especially for orphans with special needs who do not have families to look after them," she said.

Rising to the occasion, she began by taking two special needs orphans on board in 2004. The centre has now grown to 82 children, which includes kids at an adjacent daycare centre. The children have a range of challenges including autism, cerebral palsy, mental retardation and physical disabilities.

While the centre is adequately equipped to address their special requirements, Nadia said running the centre is not easy.

Despite government backing and generous public donations, it is a challenge to cover the costs of the latest treatment equipment and hiring qualified therapists who have to work in shifts to cover eight hours a day.

Nadia, who is thankful for the inputs of volunteers, said, "I hope to see a dedicated compulsory programme in our schools to emphasise on the value of voluntary work. We need to teach our children the value of sharing, giving and feeling for others."

As a mother of three boys and three girls, she has done her bit and cherishes the deep bond they enjoy with "their brothers and sisters" at Senses.

Magician in a corporate suit
Jijie Zablan
Founder: Filipino Computer Club

Filipina engineer Milagros "Jijie" Zablan is sometimes described as a magician in a corporate suit. Founder of volunteer group Filipino Computer Club (FCC) in Dubai in 1996 to render free weekend computer lessons to fellow Filipinos, she has touched the lives of thousands, including many domestic workers.

She started off with 10 "students" from the Philippine Institute of Chartered Accountants (PICPA). "Their leader asked me to train their members on Microsoft Excel. So we struck a barter: I will train their members for free and, in turn, they would also help me train other Filipinos learn what I taught them."

Since then, volunteers have given computer lesson to more than 31,000 people in Dubai and other emirates. She is the director of consultancy firm Great Minds Network, but it's her passion for volunteer work that makes a big difference to others.

Recently, she has started a free motivational class to help distressed housemaids. "We'd like them to rediscover their inner strengths enough to forgive completely and take on the challenge of turning their lives around … because attitude is everything."

Jijie says: "When you lift up something up to God and commit that you will do what it takes to achieve your goal, consider it done."

She lives by her motto: "I am at my best, when I bring out the best in you."