Mutual Impact: AJWS Volunteer Corps inspires participants; empowers NGOs


Mutual Impact: AJWS Volunteer Corps inspires participants; empowers NGOs

September 11, 2009

by William Nassau

Volunteer Corps, AJWS's volunteer service program for experienced Jewish professionals, focuses on the human resource needs of grassroots organizations. Since its inception in 1994, the program has placed over 700 volunteers with our partners in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. The impact of the experience—on both volunteers and NGOs—goes both ways.

Volunteer Corps helps grassroots NGOs in developing countries build institutional capacity through placements that match skills with specific NGO requests. Volunteers, who range in age from recent college graduates to retirees, provide training, facilitate collaboration, and enable an exchange of best practices. While the NGOs receive this valuable pro-bono support, volunteers have the opportunity to become active participants in social change. They grow personally and professionally and return home transformed.

Grassroots NGOs impact and energize volunteers

Through AJWS, volunteers stand in solidarity with grassroots movements throughout the developing world. The program builds relationships across continents and challenges participants to think about travel as an act of global citizenry. Among the many causes that AJWS grantees support, Volunteer Corps participants help fight caste discrimination in India, advance refugee rights on the Thai-Burmese border and provide health trainings in AIDS-affected areas of Uganda, Ghana, and Kenya.

AJWS volunteers rise to the challenge of living overseas and return from the developing world energized and engaged. "This was probably the finest work experience I have had…in 40 years of work," writes Daniel Rosenthal* after his 2008 assignment with the Center for Working Together for Community Support in Mexico. Working alongside grassroots NGOs compels AJWS's alumni to promote global responsibility, especially within the Jewish community. Volunteer Corps members come back and speak passionately about the program's impact on their lives, and in many instances, their connection to Judaism.

"This experience has solidified my affiliation with Judaism," says Margaret Lenzi, a volunteer who worked in India with The Committee for Legal Aid to the Poor (CLAP), an NGO focusing on legislative advocacy and community organizing. "When in India, we had many conversations about Judaism and its differences and similarities with Hinduism. Back in the USA, I am very proud to tell people that a Jewish organization made this possible. This type of experience draws me closer to the essence of Judaism which is so attractive to me."

For Jonathan Pulik, a volunteer in Uganda in 2008, Volunteer Corps "ranks as one of the most meaningful experiences of my life and I feel a great sense of satisfaction for having pursued this opportunity… Its potential benefits, not only to recipient organizations, but for Jews everywhere, are incalculable."

Returned volunteers address their congregations, write articles and plan awareness-raising events, to bring their experience home and advocate on behalf of vulnerable communities with vigor and a sense of shared commitment. Erna Brout, a returned volunteer with the Artisans' Association of Cambodia who is planning an event in Westchester, New York, in November 2009, says: "It's a responsibility of mine to share my experience, to spread the word that this opportunity is available to other people and to let people know Volunteer Corps is a way to walk the walk."

Volunteers make tangible differences for grassroots organizations

For AJWS's grassroots partners, Volunteer Corps is an invaluable resource for capacity building and organizational development. "Volunteers come with a wealth of experience," says Belynda Amankwa, Human Resources Manager at the West Africa AIDS Foundation in Ghana. The tangible contributions of volunteers highlight the value of Jewish professionals working for social justice with grassroots organizations in the developing world.

Volunteer Corps participants create impact in significant ways, from helping create an advocacy department at Kamwokya Christian Caring Community, an HIV/AIDS organization in Uganda, to implementing trainings for counselors rehabilitating victims of torture at People's Watch, a group monitoring human rights violations in India.

A volunteer with a human resources background helped create personnel policies for Carolina for Kibera, a community mobilizing organization operating in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, and an engineer developed clean water systems at The Center for Community Support in Mexico, where health and sanitation are major issues. At the Khmer Women's Welfare Association, an HIV/AIDS organization in Cambodia, a Volunteer Corps participant provided trainings in report writing and English language instruction and assisted with communications materials resulting in a new brochure to appeal to donors.

The West Africa Project to Combat AIDS and STIs (WAPCAS), a grantee in Ghana, recently received two management specialists as volunteers, Carole and Geoffrey Howard, from Warwick, New York. The Howards helped develop a five-year strategic plan and assisted WAPCAS by identifying potential donors and authoring a concept paper for USAID funding. Perhaps most importantly, the Howards worked with WAPCAS staff to identify and articulate key themes and issues important to potential contributors interested in public health, creating a sustainable approach to their fundraising strategy.

"WAPCAS has benefited immensely from the support received from these two volunteers," said Comfort Asamoah-Adu, WAPCAS's Deputy Project Director. "Our expectations were met. We have learnt a lot both formally and informally from them. We are very grateful to the Howards."

Most recently, Deborah Apeloig, a public relations and communications professional, volunteered in New Delhi with AJWS grantee Dalit Foundation. Dalits, or so-called 'untouchables,' represent the most marginalized communities in South Asia and constitute a key group served by NGO partners throughout India. Dalit Foundation works to eradicate caste-based discrimination by making grants to small community-based organizations working from within the dalit population. Deborah assisted Dalit Foundation by helping establish a communications strategy, a new web site design process and an "About Us" presentation, which has already been used by the foundation's staff representing the organization to donors.

Dalit Foundation recently reported to AJWS that "working with Deborah was great. It was a relationship of mutual learning. Her contribution towards our website was immense and the communication strategy and the PowerPoint presentation that she developed [have] been very useful for us."

The experience was powerful for Deborah as well: "I had heard that India is a place that amazes you every time that you turn your head, but I couldn't realize that idea until I experienced it for two months. I can't even count of all the big and small things I learned, analyzed and realized each and every day that I spent with DF and in India."

Just as AJWS's mission bridges its support for international grassroots development with engaging the American Jewish community, Volunteer Corps impacts NGOs and volunteers alike. International service is a crucial piece of that bridge, since NGOs receive skilled professionals with technical expertise and volunteers return home to advocate on behalf of social justice by sharing their life-changing experience. Both volunteers and our partners abroad are stakeholders in the pursuit of social justice, working in solidarity to repair the world.

* Of blessed memory