Count Me In


September 2016

Volunteer of the Month, Sept’16 – Reena Venkatesh

“ If you desire to make a difference in the world, you must be different from the world as well.”

This is a quote that many of us may have come across at some point in our volunteering journey and some of us may have understood it as well. But there are very few who embrace the thought closely enough to make it a mission in life. We are fortunate that one of our Chennai Volunteers is such a person. This perceptive, warm, sensitive, ever-smiling, gentle yet extremely driven person is our volunteer for this month, Reena Venkatesh.

Reena got to know about Chennai Volunteers from a close friend of hers and was an active volunteer from the start. She joined as a volunteer for Spoken English but soon realized that her heart lay in one particular cause – children with special needs.

Her journey began with We CAN, a resource centre that works for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Though not qualified to work with such children, what made her stand apart from others was her flexible nature and her ability to put the need of the school above her comfort. She was willing to do what the institution needed and was happy to be of help to them. WE CAN is a nurturing institution and they welcomed her cautiously, at first and then with open arms. Reena literally worked her way up as a volunteer – from clearing books in the library to making teaching aids, to admin related work. Very soon, she learnt how to shadow the teachers and help them in their sessions.

Somewhere around this time, she also realized that this was her passion and she actually took up and completed a course to become a qualified therapist for children in this spectrum, all the while keeping up with her volunteering commitments. It was incredible to see how she transformed from an easygoing person to a focused and determined professional once she stepped into her role as a skilled volunteer!

Once a specialist, she took to volunteering at another institution, Spastics Society Of Tamil Nadu, SPASTN -an institution that works with children with special needs. She began to spend an hour every week there as well. It was like she was on a mission to make a difference with such children. As she delved deeper into the special world of these children, she understood them better and was able to create content better suited to their needs.

Today, Reena volunteers relentlessly 4 days a week, between the two institutions and is our lead volunteer for children with different needs. Her hard work, focused approach to volunteering, endless energy and committed sincerity makes her a coveted volunteer. She has shown us how volunteering is no less than a profession and should be taken seriously. And she has been a volunteer at both NGOs for four years!

Ever willing to help with a beaming smile, Reena epitomizes Mahatma Gandhi’s quote that “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others. “

We know that she has a long innings ahead and that she will touch many more young lives and brighten up their day with her infectious smile and energy, as a proud Chennai Volunteer.


Second Innings – Why seniors should volunteer

The gift of agile golden years in terms of a healthy body and mind is bestowed upon many elders in our city. We see our senior citizens abundantly active in many community activities like music, dance, fitness and spiritual events, but the one sphere where they would be able to contribute most naturally and there is an existing need is Volunteerism. As people who have lived life fully and are now searching for more meaningful ways to engage, our senior citizens have the rich resources that volunteers need – experience, knowledge, patience and most importantly, time. Most of them are already helping their children or grandchildren or friends as part of their daily life so it seems seamless to extend their helping hand to others who need it, through service.

But then, one question that comes to their mind is, why should a settled and content senior citizen step out of his/ her comfort zone and volunteer?

1. Social, emotional and physical well-being: Volunteers who help others in need and sustain it over time are emotionally and physically better than others. There has been enough research done to prove that they are able to regenerate their own energy by focusing on someone else who needs them. It makes them feel younger and gives them a stronger sense of purpose. It also helps boosts their overall health and self-esteem tremendously as well. One example that comes to mind is Mr. Ravi Subramaniam (name changed) who celebrated his 60th birthday in the silicon valley with his children and then moved back to Chennai to spend time with his siblings and family. He spent a few months settling in and soon realized that he did not have much to keep him busy outside of family affairs. A chartered accountant by profession, he was very keen to spend part of his time volunteering for a needy cause, not far from his residence. He tried a few options and finally started volunteering with an NGO that works for specially-abled children and adults in the area of skill training and setting up micro businesses for them. It has been 3 years now and he is on the board of advisors of the non-profit. His passion met the need of the NGO and it’s been a good fit, ever since.

2. Bridging the generational gap – Senior volunteers who engage in a meaningful manner with youngsters are often amazed and energized by the enthusiasm and dreams of the youngsters. It helps them realize how the present generation thinks and acts differently from their generation and makes them feel updated. On the other hand, it is an accepted fact that most seniors make the best foster grandparents for youngsters in homes/ institutions for troubled or destitute children. As teachers or mentors, they just get the best response from youngsters. Case in point is Mrs. Radha (name changed) who is a retired college professor from a renowned college in Chennai. She started her volunteering journey by teaching Accounts to a couple of college boys in a study centre in South Chennai. Her hard work, patience and regular tutoring sessions paid rich dividends when the young men passed their exams with distinction and got placed in respectable jobs. For her, it was a transformational moment of having fulfilled her dream through these young men. As their teacher, she also subtly taught them invaluable lessons in life and they in turn gave her a fresh lease of life as well. She is now a volunteer for life!

3. Making new friends – As we all know, volunteering is the simple act of gifting our time, skills and talent to those who need it the most. However, to make a success of this engagement, it is important to do preparatory work backstage. This involves meeting with other volunteers, having regular volunteer orientations, feedback sessions, etc. In all this, they meet many new people from diverse backgrounds and professions. And the only thing that binds them is a shared purpose of wanting to give back to your community. Thereafter, as part of a group, they meet some more people with the same vision, to try and make a difference in someone else’s life. So, volunteering helps them make social connections – mostly very profound ones and they meet like-minded people, sometimes, 25 or 30 years younger to you! Who look up to them with respect as they are their ideal person.

4. Refreshing their knowledge: Retired professionals who start volunteering after a gap of a few years always find that they are refreshing their knowledge and updating their skills. The knowledge that they have is much easier to disseminate given the tools available today. Even in less privileged schools, they can teach, using digital aids that make learning easier and they find this very interesting. To be able to use their knowledge for someone’s welfare and be blessed by someone for helping them is way more satisfactory than getting paid for it.

These are a few reasons why volunteering works for the seniors and how it helps them. If I were to now look from the other side of the fence, all I can say is that the biggest takeaway for NGOs in terms of having senior volunteers is the sheer impact they have on the community they engage with. As a fellow volunteer once said, “ when a senior volunteer comes to teach, the students listen and learn better, when an elder serves at a home for the aged, the residents eat better and talk more, when an elder volunteer comes for a volunteer meeting, we all look up to him or her.” Because we respect the years of experience, compassion and knowledge they are willing to share with us all.

If you are (or know some) senior volunteer who wishes to start, you don’t have to look for a specific senior-friendly program to make your volunteer experience meaningful. There are opportunities everywhere – all you need to do is look around for the causes you care most about and identify where your help is needed. To name a few –

• Those who are compassionate about feeding the homeless can join “Dinners With Dignity” or feed residents in a needy home.

• Those who wish to teach can do so at schools, homes or study-centres as group volunteers or individual tutors.

• Those who wish to be professional volunteers can find a cause and offer to work part-time with them on a pro-bono basis.

• Mentoring children is an option for elders who wish to help by caring for youth with less privileges or special needs. They can help in diverse settings – schools, study centres or homes. There is a positive grandparent-grandchild relationship that can be easily fostered here.

• If you are passionate about helping other seniors, you could spend time with destitute elders at underprivileged shelters.

As part of a volunteering team, I should also acknowledge that senior volunteers, though replete with experience and compassion, do need a little extra care when it comes to volunteering. They are generally keen to volunteer only for meaningful and long-term programmes. They need more training, feedback sessions and emotional support but then that is the least that other volunteers can offer. They also like to volunteer at a centre close to where they live so it is easy to sustain this in the long run and they can travel independently. If this can be met, the seniors are able to continue their volunteering journey and derive satisfaction and emotional well-being from their volunteer experience.

Over the past few months, we at Chennai Volunteers, have been pleasantly surprised as some elders have reached out to our call for volunteers and we have some champions in the making. In fact, it is with this in mind that we are launching a new programme, especially for senior volunteers, “ Second Innings”.

It promises to open up a new vista in volunteering in Chennai. After all as someone said, your life is your message to the world, so let us help you make it inspiring!

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