#GoVolunteerJA: Cultivating Compassion and “Generation Change”

December 8th, 2014

The cavernous space at the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel in Kingston last Friday morning was humming. But not with the energy of chatting and socializing; this was serious, powerful, focused energy. I sensed it as I stepped in the door. It was the second annual National Volunteer Symposium 2014, with the Jamaica National (JN) Foundation, Cuso International and Council for Voluntary Social Services (CVSS) at the helm.

Now, I have come rather late to the business of volunteering – officially, that is, although I have been doing it very informally for a large part of my life. For me, as I continue my more focused and organized volunteer experience, I have found that an important component of volunteering is not just being a “do-gooder.”  Volunteering is not about “me” and it is not about what shows on the “outside” – although obviously all non-governmental organizations must have a public face. There is a more complex internal process that has to go on, and that is largely focused around compassion. 

Now, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet has much to say on this, and I would recommend a marvelous article by him, “Compassion and the Individual,” which you can find online. In his usual down-to-earth way, His Holiness makes this interesting point: True compassion is not just an emotional response but a firm commitment founded on reason. Therefore, a truly compassionate attitude towards others does not change even if they behave negatively.” It is one thing for your heart to melt and tears spring to your eyes when you comfort a sweet little child; it is another when a mentally ill street person throws the food you offer him back in your face. Show love and compassion, anyway, and try to help them all.

The happy band of young tweeters at the National Volunteerism Symposium.

The happy band of young tweeters at the National Volunteer Symposium.

But I digress.What were we doing at the Symposium? Firmly guided by the no-nonsense General Manager of JN Foundation Saffrey Brown and ebullient volunteer Shannon-Dale Reid (a young man with a smile like sunshine), the spotlight was firmly on youth leadership and innovation. As one of my colleagues tweeted: “Vision 2030 is for us youths! This is OUR future! Let’s all pitch in!” Yes, I was with a group of bloggers and tweeters (much younger than me!) invited to report, engage and share on the proceedings (unpaid, of course) – with the hashtag #GoVolunteerJA. We sat in a row at the back tweeting up a storm, taking the occasional break for more of the Jamaica Pegasus’ delicious coffee and browsing the tables interviewing, photographing (and Instagramming) for social media.

Miguel "Steppa" Williams chats with Kimberley Issa Sherlock during the break.

Miguel “Steppa” Williams chats with Kimberley Issa Sherlock during the break.

After Ms. Brown’s welcome, Senior Program Development Specialist at the Ministry of Youth and Culture Miguel “Steppa” Williams took over, with words and a couple of poems thrown in. He was challenging. The “youth on the corner” need a voice, he stressed. No one is listening to them. They need support. “You have to approach the youth with no discrimination,” Mr. Williams stressed.  After his invigorating and “rootsy” presentation, the slender figure of guest speaker, 24-year-old Kimberley Issa Sherlock (a former fashion model) was quite a contrast. But Ms. Sherlock is made of stern stuff. Her passion and her determination inspired the crowd. Ms. Sherlock – clearly from a privileged background, and using that advantage of her schooling, her family and social exposure to create a difference  – established the Bloom Foundation for Education in 2011, while completing her degree in Child Care and Adolescent Development at the University of Technology. She also works with the Jamaica Association for the Deaf (who, by the way, would love to have more volunteers). Her Foundation focuses on helping to provide better facilities and enhance learning for children with special needs.

Lloyd-Howard Smalling of the South Circle Optimist Club talks about his "Project Hampden." (Photo: JN Foundation)

Lloyd-Howard Smalling of the South Circle Optimist Club talks about his “Project Hampden.” (Photo: JN Foundation)

A graduate of The Queen’s High School, Ms. Sherlock is clearly determined to motivate young people towards a “Generation Change” mentality, as she calls it. She thinks teaching the philosophy of service should start very early – kindergarten age, she suggested. But although change is the only certainty in life, as they say, sometimes it needs a kick start. Ms. Sherlock has a fresh, open and “can do” approach to volunteering. She is ready to work with anyone who has vision. And speaking of that, Vision 2030 – the Jamaican government’s medium-term development plan – was regularly referred to throughout the day. “It is seen as a piece of paper,” said Ms. Sherlock, “But it’s not. It’s on the ground action!”  The work that volunteers do is very much a part of that envisioned development, that progress, that powering into the future. Ms. Winsome Wilkins, CEO of CVSS, pointed to the example of the 4-H Clubs in Jamaica, with thousands of young volunteers across the island.

World Cafe under way! (Photo: JN Foundation)

World Cafe under way! (Photo: JN Foundation)

Now, there was a competitive aspect to the day’s proceedings: several voluntary organizations “pitched” for a grant from JN Foundation. The audience cheered and whooped their support, while the judges considered. At the end of the day, Project Hampden, spearheaded by Lloyd-Howard Smalling of the South Circle Optimist Club won. The grant will be used to build proper sanitary facilities for the little children at Hampden Early Childhood Development Centre in Kingston, who currently have to use a “chimmy” – in other words, a chamber pot. Mr. Smalling’s group will continue to support the school, which is in very bad repair. Second was another worthy effort: Back2Life, endorsed by the Governor General’s I Believe Initiative, is a mentoring program for the boys at the Rio Cobre Juvenile Correctional Centre near Spanish Town. That’s two worthy groups that young people could get involved with, right there.

I caught a great smile from Cuso International's Programs Manager in Jamaica, Onyka Barrett.

I caught a great smile from Cuso International’s Programs Manager in Jamaica, Onyka Barrett.

Just a word for those who are considering volunteering for the first time, especially the youth: Be prepared. There is a need for more training for volunteers, the Symposium noted. More volunteer mentors would be very helpful indeed – someone to guide the new volunteer through the process – the mental, the physical, the do’s and don’ts. Yes, there is much to learn. And realize, too, as Saffrey Brown pointed out – volunteering is not about self. It is about building the country, block by block. Oh yes, volunteers are problem-solvers; they can (and do) fix things.

One more word about compassion. During the “World Café” session in the afternoon, participants circulated round several tables hosted by voluntary organizations. I sat down with founder of the youth-based organization “Feeding of the 5,000,” Jordan Bennett. His group feeds the homeless and impoverished individuals in the inner cities who simply don’t have enough to eat. Sometimes they supply groceries for those who can cook for themselves. They have a nutritionist to guide them. There are many challenges – I would love to see them get more private sector support – and sometimes they have to dip into their own pockets. But they do not intend to stop.

It’s not just about food for hungry people (although more Jamaicans than you would think are going hungry). “We also feed their minds and hearts,” says Jordan Bennett. They sit down and talk to the people they care for. “We leave something lasting with them – and that’s love,he adds. This is what compassion is all about.

Dr. Martin Luther King described the concept of a “Compassionate Community.” Now, there is a “Martin” quote for everything, and here is an apt one to end on:

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”

Well? What are you waiting for? Go out, take action, and you will not regret it, I promise you.

P.S. Ms. Sherlock recommended two books, if you are looking for more information and inspiration: “The Power of Giving: How Giving Back Enriches Us All” by Azim Jamal; and “Vision and Volunteerism” by Don Robotham.

And the theme tune for the day was “My Generation” by Damian Marley and Nas. Listen to the lyrics!

Compassion in action: Jordan Bennett explains the vision of Feeding of the 5000 while his colleague listens, at the World Cafe.

Compassion in action: Jordan Bennett explains the vision of Feeding of the 5000 while his colleague listens, at the World Cafe.


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