Suparna Mathur’s earliest memory of volunteering is when she helped hand out bottles of water to runners at the Terry Fox run in Abu Dhabi. She was just nine.
Life appears to have come full circle for the Canadian, 34, who has since launched two non-governmental organisations that help UAE residents find meaningful volunteering opportunities.
Ms Mathur’s family moved to Abu Dhabi when she was five. Growing up in the capital in the 1980s and 90s, Ms Mathur said opportunities for charity work were few and far between.
At school, she helped with event registrations and volunteered at the Future Center for children with special needs.
Now associate director of community outreach at NYU Abu Dhabi, Ms Mathur has witnessed, and contributed to, the growth of the emirate’s charity sector.
“Things have changed a lot in the last decade. Then, it was hard to find opportunities for volunteering and people did not necessarily have a strong sense of what volunteering meant.”
Though volunteerism has become part of everyday society, the emirate lacks consistent, structured volunteer programmes, she said.
"There are incredible volunteer opportunities that are one-off events during Ramadan or the Special Olympics. But there isn’t the scope to volunteer somewhere every weekend. Also, a lot of the charities focus on fundraising but not on community engagement.
“We need more leaders and people creating and running volunteer programmes.”
After graduating from high school, Ms Mathur moved to Toronto, Canada, to earn a diploma in International Development but moved back to the UAE in 2008 to be closer to her family.
A year later, she launched Volunteers in Abu Dhabi. But the platform, that connected volunteers with non-profit charities, did not last long and has since dissolved.
In its place, in 2011, Ms Mathur launched Abu Dhabi Cause Connect. She looked on Facebook and found other Canadians eager to volunteer their time to a good cause.
In the absence of formal volunteering networks, Ms Mathur began calling charities and asking if they needed volunteers for events. Slowly, they began reaching out to her themselves.
Between 2011 and 2015, Abu Dhabi Cause Connect had worked with about 4,000 volunteers 22 companies and 12 charities.
“I think volunteering is one of the most powerful catalysts for change,” said Ms Mathur.
She said making people feel at home in a country like UAE is important, as people come here from all over the world.
“Volunteering brings people from different walks of life together for a common cause. It doesn’t matter where you are from or what your professional experience is.”
Ms Mathur, originally from Jaipur, draws inspiration from her grandparents, who fought against British occupation of India and showed how the work of individuals has impact as a collective.
She hopes there will be another programme like it that will encourage meaningful charity work that will do more than raise one-off donations, rather create a long-lasting effect.
“If you put Dh20 in a box, you know that’s going towards a good cause and you feel good about yourself for some time. If you take that Dh20 and you buy a book or a toy and can give it to a child, that same amount of money can create interaction and that’s going to change you.”
She believes, however, that not all charity work is about giving money to people.
“Volunteering is about contributing your knowledge, skills and time as that’s more impactful.”
One of the social impact projects she launched as part of Abu Dhabi Cause Connect was the Bus Raids project – which was the idea of a pupil from The American Community School.
The initiative, which began in 2012, involved giving goody bags filled with clothes, food and amenities as well as messages giving thanks to workers at the end of their work day.
During their last bus raid, more than 200 volunteers helped distribute the bags to 5,000 workers.
Most recently, Ms Mathur has turned her attention to the environment.
Last year, at NYU Abu Dhabi, she organised nurdle hunts - where volunteers collect the tiny plastic pellets that end up in the sea due to spills and mishaps by companies that create and ship them abroad – off the capital’s beaches.
Making people aware of the crisis of climate change is Ms Mathur’s next initiative, as she prepares to embark on an expedition to the Arctic.
In June, she will travel to the glaciers near the north pole with Robert Swan, the first person to walk to the north and south pole, to witness the impact of climate change first hand.
She will be among a group of 60 to 80 people who will meet in Oslo and take part in a series of seminars on climate change and what can be done to stifle it. They will then then head out to the 10 to 14-day-long expedition, where they will kayak, walk and learn about the environment.
For people who want to volunteer but are struggling to find an opportunity, Ms Mathur has this message: "Anyone who wants to volunteer approaches it with purpose and passion but it takes time to find the right volunteering experience and opportunity."