ABU DHABI // A drive to recruit young volunteers in the UAE proved so successful it now has a new challenge - finding enough work for them all, the head of the Takatof programme said. The number of registered volunteers doubled last year to 11,773 from 5,713 in 2008, newly published figures revealed.
Takatof - Arabic for "shoulder to shoulder" - launched three years ago as an extension of the Emirates Foundation for philanthropy. The programme has a total of 14,804 registered volunteers. Maytha al Habsi, the director of Takatof, said it was a promising sign that people in the Emirates were willing to help the needy beyond donating money and food. "We have an opposite challenge now," she said. "We had to attract youth at the early stages, but now there's so much interest. Thousands are signing and up and how can you keep the interest and demand? You have to do things quickly or lose the interest of your people."
The programme has logged more than 236,679 volunteering hours, but when it first started one concern was how to sell volunteering to the local teenage population. Visiting special care centres, painting school walls and helping to install air-conditioning units in dilapidated homes may not seem desirable activities to youngsters when a summer blockbuster is on show at the cinema. "If you think about trying to convince somebody who is sitting with friends at the coffee shop or hanging out at the mall to care about the latest cause, we were wondering how we were going to attract this category," Ms al Habsi said.
"The way we addressed it was we knew it had to be fun, it had to be modernised and rewarding." Dr Mohammed al Mutawa, a sociologist and board member of the Sociological Association, agreed that the recruitment of young volunteers could be a tough task, given that teenagers are generations removed from Bedouin life - a time when community engagement was essential. "Before oil, people were helping each other build houses and this and that, but for the young nowadays, everybody is busy and maybe they feel they don't have spare time for volunteering," he said.
"The other issue is the stress on self-interest. The will is maybe available, but it needs more of a push." While volunteering activities may be robust during Ramadan, when charity and the spirit of helping others is emphasised, Dr al Mutawa questioned whether the gestures of goodwill might recede after Eid. "It's a holy month and people are trying to do good things, but after Ramadan the activity will likely slow down," he said.
Ms al Habsi hoped the momentum from Ramadan would continue for some time and has been impressed by the youngsters. Rather than have iftar at home with their families, for instance, some youths have opted to serve meals to labourers in Umm al Qaiwain. "Once we kicked off a few projects, the demand was huge and the energy exploded," she said. "It's now our job to continue channelling that energy in meaningful ways."
The chance for people to meet new friends while developing skills was one of the big draws for Abdulla al Hashidi, 18, from Abu Dhabi. The university student, who studies architecture at Pennsylvania State, was introduced to "some of the greatest people I've ever met" while working for four months as a volunteer. He has been translating English to Arabic during an educational puppet show for children.
"Some of my high school friends saw me in the newspaper and kept asking about these projects," he said. "I think they're going to start developing an interest, too." A pair of Emiratis who watched Mr al Hashidi help out at a show enquired about how they might join. "I told them about the website. Two days later, they showed up," he said. "They were reading stories to the kids." Ms al Habsi called the enthusiasm "amazing", noting that volunteers have been arriving at the Takatof headquarters hours before the work was due to begin.
"People are coming before we open," she said, "and they're staying beyond working hours. They're seeing how important they are." For more information, visit www.takatof.ae. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org