Past and present volunteers joined VSO supporters and special guests for a special celebration at London’s Royal Geographical Society.
“Never underestimate the power of collective action, of people coming together with a common purpose of creating a better world.”
Those were the words of Andrew Ashe, CEO of onebillion, giving a keynote speech that summed up the deeper meaning behind the 2019 VSO Volunteer Impact Awards.
The awards, kindly supported by education union NASUWT, are an annual opportunity to recognise the volunteers on the frontline of VSO’s work, who are making a real difference to communities at the grassroots level.
The night was also a visible reminder of the diversity of VSO’s modern volunteering workforce, with nominees hailing from 14 different countries.
Some volunteers travelled thousands of miles to take up their placements, while some heeded the call to volunteer much closer to home.
Changing the laws to protect girls in Tanzania
First up, Irene Bitumbe from Tanzania was recognised for her incredible work in Lindi and Bukoba, Tanzania, tackling sexual reproductive health and rights for young people, especially girls.
Receiving her award, Irene recounted how she first encountered interactive theatre as an effective technique while taking part in the International Citizen Service (ICS) youth volunteering programme. She went on to use this as a tool to deliver workshops that spread messages about teenage pregnancy and sexual health.
"Performance really opened the eyes of the community," said Irene. "Afterwards, the community who watched the drama make commitments about what they want to see change. Stakeholders from the local government also came to these performances and did follow-ups to make sure that the commitments are followed through."
It was through this approach that Irene reached over 15,000 people, and even led to new laws being formed in seven villages to protect the rights of girls. A survey of communities showed that about 50% of people have changed their attitudes to teenage pregnancy.
Asked what she wishes for Tanzania's marginalised girls, Irene, who is still only 25 years old, said:
"I pursued my dreams. I went to school, I graduated and I achieved what I wanted to achieve. Now I have joy and I'm happy. I just want my other girls to feel the same. I want them to be able to pursue their dreams in life, by challenging local attitudes, behaviours and traditions."
Standing up for the human rights of refugee children
Ann Wambui is a repeat VSO volunteer who has previously supported Rwandan pre-schools to embed a new early childhood education curriculum. She took on a totally different context and challenge over the past year when she took up a placement in the Rohingya refugee camps of Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.
Ann was recognised for being instrumental in setting up a system of home-based education for young refugee children.
"It was a very difficult context," remembered Kenyan volunteer Ann, "Life in the camp is very slow. At the same time, some of the things you would consider normal are not there in the camps. Things like free movement, freedom of expression. These children do not have that."
Ann used ingenuity to develop teaching aids in a context of scarcity by using discarded items like bottle caps to help 3 to 5-year-olds learn basic numeracy, language and motor skills.
By training 50 Rohingya women to deliver teaching in the tents refugee children call home, VSO has been able to provide education to more than 1,500 children.
"You have to remember these children didn't ask to be marginalised," said Ann in a passionate speech after receiving her award, "They didn't ask to be refugees."
Boosting the income of poor farmers by 500%
Socheat Rouerm is a great representation of modern day VSO volunteering.
The rice farmer from Rainkesei, Cambodia, who was once struggling to support his own family due to poor harvests and market fluctuations, became a volunteer helping around 200 fellow rice farmers around his community. He's the winner of the Livelihoods Volunteer Award, which was sponsored by Randstad.
"I don't have big dreams for myself," said Socheat, in a humble acceptance speech, "I just want to be like a big strong tree with branches out to serve the farmers and help them overcome the obstacles facing us, including climate change."
Socheat's role has been key to building trust and forging relationships between farmers, agricultural cooperatives and millers. The farmers he has worked with have increased their income by an average of 500%.
Standing with cyclone-affected communities in Mozambique
Elisabeth Kisakye was a communications & advocacy volunteer working in Mozambique's Manica Province when Cyclone Idai hit in March 2019. She could have been evacuated to her home of Uganda, but even as heavy winds and torrential rain lashed the local community, she decided to stay and help.
"I'd been a part of these communities for five years working on education and advocacy projects," said Elisabeth. "They were part and parcel of my life. I could not just sit back and let this storm take a toll on my people. I had to put aside my own desires and comforts and be there."
Elisabeth played a critical role in coordinating the distribution of emergency aid to more than 10,000 people, and provided vital communications support. She became the voice of VSO's Idai Emergency Appeal, raising £130,000 for the relief and recovery work.
Celebrating impact beyond volunteering
Volunteering changes not just communities, but volunteers themselves, often giving them a new perspective and sense of purpose. Research shows that more than half of VSO volunteers become more socially active after their placements.
The Impact Beyond Volunteering Award is given to just such a volunteer. The winner, chosen by public vote, was Ruby Yap, who was so touched by her VSO placement in Ghana that she went on to set up her own NGO in the north of the country.
"The impact VSO had on me was tremendous," said Ruby. "It changed me to who I am now."
Ruby's work, which is ongoing, has included drilling wells, teaching widows to read and providing medical equipment.
"Before, I didn't realise what I was capable of doing," remembered Ruby. "It's a total shift from my life before, and it's through VSO that I realised that I really could do something to make the world a better place."
Celebrating our collective achievements
The Volunteer Impact Awards are a reminder of what is possible when we work together.
“It’s really astounding to see what you’ve all achieved,” said keynote speaker Andrew Ashe, addressing the assembled supporters, “Volunteering has changed all of us. I look forward to seeing what all of you will continue to achieve together in the years to come.”
Kenyan volunteer Ann Wambui shares what she's learnt as a volunteer in Cox's Bazar camp in Bangladesh.