Volunteering in London : Spires and Shelter from the Storm

It’s no secret that there is a huge homelessness problem in the UK. I have blogged about it before but hadn’t had time to do much about it myself until recently.
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A couple of months ago, when I was between jobs, I volunteered with a homeless charity called ‘Shelter from the Storm‘. Unfortunately, it was over an hour away from where I live and the only shifts they needed volunteers for were over night. I got home at 8am and went to straight to bed! Once I started working again, I knew I couldn’t commit to volunteering there but started looking for somewhere closer to home. (if you want to get involved please visit their website, it’s hyperlinked above).
My experience there was a real eye opener. The shelter has two dorms, one male and one female, a kitchen, a lounge area and 2 or 3 showers. Residents must arrive by 6pm (unless they are working in which case they just need to let volunteers know what time they will be back so they can be accounted for). They are served dinner by a group of volunteers and have a few hours to relax, take a shower and watch TV. Lights go out at 10. It’s pretty strict as many people need to get up early to go to work and it would be unfair to them if the hostel was noisy all night. In the morning, everyone must be out by 8am. They get up, have coffee/tea and breakfast and off they go for the day. SFTS also has a counsellor who visits a few nights a week. In order to keep the hostel safe and comfortable for everyone, volunteers included, no-one is allowed in if they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
I was shocked at just how many of the people staying there had jobs. It’s just devastating to think that someone can work 8 or even 10 hours a day and still not make enough money to have their own bed to sleep in. It is one of the most basic human rights, the right to have somewhere safe to sleep, and it never fails to break my heart when I think of how many people in the 4th richest country in the world don’t even have that.
While it was a fairly quiet night, here was one minor incident that I had to deal with that got my heart racing for a minute! While some of the other volunteers were sleeping, I could hear an argument breaking out in the men’s bedroom at around 1am. I was terrified for a minute but I knew that if I didn’t do something, everyone would be awake!  I took a deep breath and went to investigate. It turned out that one of the men was getting pissed off that another guy was snoring loudly. We have all heard about married couples who have terrible problems when one of them is a snorer – imagine the toll it would take on you if you shared a room with 20 other people every night and there was snoring coming from every corner!  It was quickly sorted out but it really stuck out in my head. Even with amazing shelters like SFTS providing a safe place, meals and support, nothing quite beats the comfort of your own room and the quality of sleep for the people there really can’t be great. I felt extremely grateful for my bed that night and a twinge of guilt for how often I take it for granted.
Fast forward to a few months later. I am settled and enjoying my new job and as the weather has (prematurely) started to cool down, I was drawn towards homelessness again and felt in a better position to do something about it this time. I spotted a Tweet by Spires, a charity who help people who are homeless in Streatham. Its a 20 min walk from my house and they were looking for help with fundraising. Perfect!
Spires is a place where people who are homeless, particularly those sleeping rough,  can go to have a shower and a meal and to get the help they need. Every person is given a key worker who works with them on whatever their problems are. Some people will need help with drug and alcohol addiction, some with domestic abuse or sex work, some just need a temporary solution while they get back on their feet and some are looking for training or qualifications which will enable them to get a better job. All of them want a better life for themselves.
From their website:
Spires provides support to anyone who is in a state of crisis.  Many of our clients have multiple and complex needs, ranging from homelessness and insecure accommodation, unemployment, poor mental and physical health, problems with addiction and substance abuse, domestic abuse, as well as help and support for sex-working women, many of whom have entrenched addictions and chaotic lifestyles.

Spires’ services are offered 5 days per week (Monday to Friday) throughout the year to those who access our centre or meet our workers when we are running outreach sessions. Along with the basic provision of food, clothing, showers and healthcare, we also provide for our client’s longer terms needs by offering them appropriate support, advice and referral from our team of fully trained support workers.

A full assessment of need will be conducted with each new client at Spires to ascertain who can best help an individual to improve their circumstances.

My role at Spires, is to help with fundraising. I will be helping the with research and bid writing, donor acquisition and anything else they need help with. There are a few events coming up in the next few months so expect to be hearing a lot about that from me! I’m really excited to be volunteering and this is a cause that’s really important to me.

For help or advice on how you can get involved with volunteering, please e-mail me or comment below!

Donating Blood with the NHS – zero cost, and minimal time!

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(Excuse the horrendous photo, I was not in the right frame of mind for posing!)

After three attempts since September (and good intentions for years!), I finally plucked the courage to donate blood!

I HATE needles. I get so anxious whenever I have to have a blood test and always look like a complete baby.

My Mum always donated blood when we were growing up and I know how important it is so I’ve always wanted to go but found every excuse imaginable. Yesterday, I was filling out the form at home and when I answered “yes” to a tattoo in the last 12 months I was hoping that meant I couldn’t go. Turns out, you can donate four months after a tattoo but they will take an extra sample for testing.

I  know it’s not a big deal for a lot of people but I was freaking out! Thankfully, my lovely roommate came for moral support.

If you are healthy, and eligible, please consider donating blood. It’s so easy to register and there is always a huge demand. To register, go to  http://www.blood.co.uk/

You can check your eligibility, check your area for venues and make a booking, The staff are so friendly and helpful and you will be looked after really well.

You might not have a lot of free time to volunteer, or money to donate but you may be able to save a life with your blood donation!

Harmony Home Taiwan: 2014 Secret Santa Toy Drive

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I first heard about Harmony Home a few years ago on a Taiwan expat forum, Forumosa. I had been looking for somewhere to volunteer and it sounded perfect. Harmony Home has become very dear to my heart and I have such respect and admiration for the staff that work tirelessly to run the centre and to care for the kids.

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It all began in 1986…

 when Nicole Yang welcomed her friend, the renowned Taiwanese theater artist, Tian Chi-yuan to her home with her two children.  He had nowhere else to go because he was HIV positive. It was the time when there was no proper medical treatment available and there was insufficient understanding of the disease. The rapid increase of AIDS patients has caused negative responses in the society. This further induced withdrawal of people living with HIV/AIDS (PLHA) out of fear of being discriminated. Being aware of this sad situation, Nicole opened up her home to PLHA to provide them with a secure place to live in. Out of compassion, she established Harmony Home with the hope of fully reintegrating them to the society.
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As is usually the case, it took a couple of e-mails to get a reply but when I did, it was friendly and enthusiastic and I couldn’t wait to get involved. My first visit was a little chaotic, there were kids running around everywhere, my Chinese was almost non-existent and everyone looked far too busy to be bothered with me. It took a few visits to get used to the way things are done but every time I came the kids would jump up and come to hug me. I taught English there with two friends, one person with all those kids was just not enough!! They have a classroom upstairs with lots of arts and crafts supplies. After a few months, I decided to organize some outings for the kids. It would be a nice break for the nannies and great for the kids to get out and let off some steam! They are often cooped up inside and end up fighting over toys and the TV. Our first outing was a hike in Xin Yi and the kids absolutely loved it! A group of friends came, with their dogs and toddlers in tow and everyone had a great afternoon.

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After that, we started going to the park regularly. The kids had the freedom to run around and play with adult supervision. Some of the kids were curious about the volunteers, others were too shy but either way, they were out and about and getting fresh air and exercise. One particular Saturday, we had a lot of dogs with us and the kids loved them! They were fascinated and took turns walking them and feeding them snacks. For some of the kids, it was their first experience with a pet because they have grown up in the centre. It was so lovely to see!

My favourite outing, however, had to be the trip we took to the public swimming pool. It was in the middle of a melting summer and the park was just a bit too hot. The kids were exhausted and hiding under the slide for shade so we took them to the outdoor pool instead. The LOVED it! For a lot of the little kids, it was their first time swimming and they had so much fun.

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I have continued to be involved with Harmony Home as a fundraiser and coordinator even though I can’t go and see the kids any more and will keep doing so for as long as I can. Recently, Harmony Home have been on the receiving end of a horrible campaign to remove them from their centre on Xin Yi due to neighbours complaining and it is really heartbreaking to hear about it all. They really need support this year and thanks to my amazing friends and the Harmony Home volunteer network I think 2014 is going to end of a very positive note.

Throughout my time volunteering with Harmony Home we have had so many fun events, two VERY successful drag shows at Dalida, my Black and White birthday, two Halloween parties, Pride parade and two Christmas parties. On top of that, we have had more clothes, books and appliances than I can count as well as tons of new volunteers and patrons. The generosity of the community in Taipei never fails to amaze me!

Our current event is the annual Secret Santa event which is in its third, and what looks to be biggest, year! Here’s the basic idea:

Dear volunteers and supporters,

I am sure you are all familiar with “secret santa” concept. You pick a number out of a hat and buy an anonymous gift for that person.
I’d like to do something similar this year for the kids at Harmony Home.
It will be all the kids name in the hat and you guys will be buying a gift for one of them.
I have a list of each of their names, ages and genders.
All you have to do is let me know you would like to take part and I will allocate you a kid. I’ll give you the info and then you go and buy them a gift, wrap it and put their name on it.
This way, each kid in the centre will get a lovely gift, chosen just for them.
I’d like to set a spending limit because everyone has different budgets and we don’t want some kids to receive really extravagant gifts. Rather, if you would like to give more or you have extra cash, I can allocate you more children!

Lets say, around 500NT.

This year, we have had such an overwhelming response that we have so many more donors than kids!!! For anyone who wants to get involved from now, you can make a donation via PayPal or credit card here or make a donation in kind (list here)and drop it off either at the centre 1F No.262-1, Jiaxing St., Xinyi District, Taipei City 110 or at the Christmas show Santaland Diaries.

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VSO: The Volunteer Experts

VSO-logo1I’ve been thinking about adding a section with details on specific organisations. I’m going to start off with an excellent volunteer group- VSO. If you are a skilled professional and you are looking for a way to use your skills and expertise where it is needed most, VSO are a fantastic organisation to get involved with.

A while back, I featured Sarah Naughton, a friend of mine who volunteered in Rwanda a few years ago, in the ” volunteer experiences” section and she described her volunteer placement with VSO. I was really impressed with how Sarah described VSO, and I’ve always been a big fan of how they operate. Here’s why:

– they are dedicated to long term solutions

-they send experts in their fields, to ensure that projects succed

-they ask volunteers to commit for at least 6 months, non of this ” gap year” two week business.

VSO is one of the world largest volunteer networks in the world, and like the UN, they want the best of the best for the projects. They advertise their placements the same way the advertise paid positions and if you want to apply, you will need to send you CV and a covering letter. It is competitive and they want the right person for each position. You must commit to at least 6 months, and fundraise for your trip. This is volunteering done right.

If you cannot commit to a longer term placement overseas, VSO encourage you to volunteer for them at home where you can campaign and fundraise. They have lots of ideas on the website to help get you started.

Do you know another great volunteer group that you would recommend for someone wanting to volunteer overseas? Please comment or e-mail me volunteerasia@hotmail.com

The Plight of Asian Elephants: Volunteering in Thailand

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My first overseas volunteering experience was in Thailand in 2008 at WFFT with Globalteer. It was the beginning of a year travelling and I couldn’t think of a better start to an amazing year. WFFT is an animal rescue centre about 6 hours outside Bangkok, in a beautiful rural area. The grounds themselves are picturesque. It was like living in the middle of the jungle. I was volunteering as part of the group looking after abused elephants in the elephant sanctuary part of the centre. During the day, the elephants stay in an enclosure and are fed and cleaned. They love to eat pineapples and watermelons. At night, they are walked out into the forest to graze and sleep. Every night they need to be left in a different spot in a bid to outsmart poachers who steal elephants for the tourist trade. In the morning, they are walked back to the centre. The morning and evening walks were amazing.

EVERY year without fail, I see people on my Facebook riding elephants on holiday in Thailand and other popular destinations and it breaks my heart. I often post articles to try and deter them but it mostly falls on deaf ears. (More of that willful ignorance I have mentioned before). Its seems people are more interested in having that quintessential elephant ride or tiger or monkey picture than learning about how the animals are treated. In reality, the animals are captured by killing the parents and stealing the young. To train them, they are starved and beaten into submission to break their spirits and once trained are kept in awful conditions.

Elephants in Thailand.  (from Globalteer.org)

There are only around 2,000-3,000 wild elephants in Thailand

When commercial logging was banned in Thailand there was no longer a demand for working elephants and their owners were forced to resort to different ways to make an income. Unfortunately, in many cases, this meant exploiting the elephants for the tourist industry.

The growth of urban areas in Thailand, has seen the elephants natural habitat become smaller and smaller. 

Many elephant owners took their animals to the big cities and today there are many elephants roaming the city streets at night, the dirty, hectic city environment is far from ideal for these elephants, which are by nature forest dwellers.

The noise and traffic causes them considerable stress, not to mention the dangers posed by the traffic.

Every year many elephants are killed or injured in traffic accidents. City elephants are frequently malnourished and do not consume anywhere near the amount of food that they should eat every day just to prevent excretion on the streets.

In the daytime the city elephants are kept hidden away from view in unsuitable locations such as rubbish tips or disused car parks, often without adequate shade and no access to good food, only leaves from city trees intoxicated with pollutants.

Elephants are frequently drugged to keep them calm in the chaotic city environment.

Many city elephants suffer from respiratory diseases as a result of constantly breathing in polluted air and are at risk of standing on broken glass and other debris on the streets leading to infections.

They are not bathed regularly, as elephants should be, and this often leads to skin diseases.

Thailand has a thriving tourism industry. Unfortunately this has been exploited by people wishing to make money by using elephants as ‘entertainment’ and every day hundreds of animals are suffering at the hands of humans purely to make a profit for their owners.

They are forced to perform degrading and unnatural tricks, often being beaten with spike hammers. Kept on chains 24 hours a day, these animals lose their dignity and freedom and merely exist as moneymaking commodities. The elephants are worked hard, often with out shade, and denied the much needed time for eating, drinking and bathing.

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In many ways, this was an eye-opening trip. I met people from all over the world, many of whom were activists and seasoned travelers. I was exposed to a lot of new (to me) ideas which have stayed with me and had a big influence on my politics and lifestyle. Just last year, I met up with one of my friends from WFFT in Amsterdam and had a ball reminiscing about our days walking the elephants.

Ready for your first experience volunteering overseas?

A friend of mine, Cátia Lúcio, shares her experiences at WFFT here.

Volunteer with elephants through Globalteer in Thailand or Cambodia.

Volunteer Stories: Lindy Mei

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Lindy Mei: USA
I met Lindy a couple of years ago when we both volunteered for TSPCA walking and caring for dogs. Lindy joined an excursion I planned for the kids at Harmony Home Taiwan and was amazing. The kids took to her immediately and had so much fun, Since then, Lindy goes to help out with the kids in the Xin Yi centre whenever she can. You can read her advice here. 
I have volunteered with Harmony Home for almost three years and continue to be involved with them from the UK. We will be continuing out “Secret Santa” toy drive this year so I’ll be updating you all about that soon.
If you are interested in volunteering at Harmony Home, you can e-mail me at volunteerasia@hotmail.com and I will send you an application form and guidelines.

International day of the Girl Child and why gender equality is key to ending poverty.

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Emma Watson has been widely praised for her recent speech on gender equality as a UN Goodwill Ambassador. And rightly so. Emma is promoting a new initiative called HeForShe which is a call for men to join in and feel included in the conversation about gender equality. Or as she put it, “extend a formal invitation” to join the cause.

In recent years, there have been many campaigns focusing on equal rights and education for girls and women and many studies showing the positive effects equal opportunities for the sexes can have in the fight against poverty.October 11th has been declared the “ International day of the Girl Child” as part of a worldwide initiative by the charity Plan International. I used to fundraise for Plan when I lived in Australia and have been a supporter of their ” Because I Am A Girl” campaign for about five years now.

While extreme poverty is a global issue which affects many demographics, women and girls are still disproportionately affected by poverty and suffer many more injustices, like child marriage, FGM (female genital mutilation), honour killings, rape and domestic abuse and death from complications during pregnancy or childbirth. In many countries across the developing world, women are denied the education and opportunities afforded to their male counterparts.

In the developing world 3 million girls in Africa are at risk of FGM this year.

1 in 3 girls will be married before they turn 18 and 1 in 9 before they reach 15.

Victims of early and forced marriage typically have children very young.

Approximately 70,000 girls die in labour every year because their bodies aren’t ready for childbirth.

Globally, 65 MILLION girls are not in school.

In Africa, 101 million girls aged 10 and over have been subjected to FGM.

Women are in general 14 times more likely to die in a disaster than men

These numbers are absolutely shocking.

From my own experiences volunteering in Asia, it is strikingly obvious that it is a massive disadvantage to be a woman in the developing world. In Vietnam, I volunteered at The Little Rose Warm Shelter, a home for girls who had been or were at risk of being, sexually abused or trafficked. In Cambodia, where I volunteered on two occasions, you didn’t need to look far to see the huge prostitution problem, with girls as young as 11 and 12 walking the streets.

Educating women and empowering them to has proven to be hugely successful where implemented. Educated women marry later in life, have smaller families and they are much more likely to put their own children in school. Their increased literacy and numeracy skills give them better careers and awareness of health issues.

Just one extra year in high school can increase a woman’s salary by between 15 and 25%, and as a knock-on effect, the income of her entire family.

a woman with a better education is more likely to survive childbirth, and her children are more likely to survive early childhood.

girls with a high school education are 6 times LESS likely to be married as children

Volunteering with Women’s Charities

If you are planning to volunteer or donate and want to get involved with charities especially focused on women and girls here are some fantastic organisations to consider;

The Little Rose Warm Shelter, Vietnam

Plan International

HeForShe

Additionally, if you have volunteered somewhere with a woman’s charity and would like to share your experiences or some advice, please e-mail me on volunteerasia@hotmail.com so I can add your organisation to this post.

 

Volunteer Stories: Lorena Poitras

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Lorena Poitras: Canada

I met Lorena while living in Taiwan. She was very well known in the ex-pat community for her tireless efforts volunteering with Animals Taiwan and I was very excited that she agreed to write about her experiences.

This is a fantastic account of Lorena’s volunteer work with Animals Taiwan and an absolute must-read for anyone thinking about volunteering abroad. Lorena talks about culture differences and gives some really valuable advice.

You can read it here!

Volunteer Stories: Cátia Lúcio

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Cátia Lúcio: Portugal

I met Cátia in Thailand a number of years ago when we were both volunteering with Globalteer with Wildlife Friends of Thailand. It was the first time for both of us to volunteer overseas.

WFFT is about 6 hours north of Bangkok in the Petchaburi province and is a rescue centre for abuse and abandoned animals.  It is a beautiful location and I loved hearing all the sound of nature at night when we were sleeping. Cátia and I were in different programs, I was on the team who worked only with elephants whereas Cátia worked with many other animals. There were bears, crocodiles, monkeys, a horse, dogs, cats, iguanas and so many more I don’t remember.

It was a fairly expensive program, with a large donation to the centre but accommodation and three meals a day are provided. They cater for vegetarians too. Accommodation was shared rooms and pretty basic but you are right in the middle of the jungle and it was an experience like no other. I loved it! Your duties are mainly feeding and cleaning and there was lots of extra time for relaxing and socialising. It is also close to Cha Am and Hua Hin where you can go to the beach on your days off.

Before going: 

Visa: you can get a landing visa on arrival in Bangkok airport.

Vaccinations; I was vaccinated against rabies, typhoid, Hepatitus A and B

Medication: Malarial medication is a good idea in this area.

 

These are some pictures I took while volunteering at WFFT;

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