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A true believer’s challenging quest to promote volunteerism in Kazakhstan

16 апреля 2013, 15:13

When Vera Kim was a university student, her volunteer organization took some orphans to a classical Russian play at the Chekhov Theater in Pavlodar.

The organization had assigned a volunteer to each child. Vera’s charge was a 5-year-old boy.

The child didn’t say a word during the play, so Vera concluded he was bored.

But when the curtain dropped, the boy looked up at her and said earnestly: “When I have my own family, I’m going to take my children to the theater.”

It was a moment that touched Vera’s heart, strengthening her commitment to helping others through volunteering.

Now, 12 years later, she’s in a job that is giving her a chance to help Kazakhstan expand its fledgling volunteerism movement.

Vera has been director of the Astana-based National Volunteer Network since the organization was formed in 2010.

Its objectives include acquainting non-profit agencies across the country with the benefits of volunteerism and teaching them how to recruit and train volunteers.

Because Kazakhstan has no tradition of volunteerism, Vera sometimes feels she’s crying in the wilderness.

“Many people ask me why someone would want to work for free” by volunteering, she said. “They also ask what’s in it for them -- what they will get out of volunteering.”

“I tell them that what volunteers get is the feeling they get here,” she said, touching her heart.

Actually, there is a benefit to volunteering, Vera noted: gaining experience that leads to job opportunities.

Vera Kim at Social Camp Astana, a national conference of non-profit organizations, in 2010. Photo courtesy of Vera Kim

Vera Kim at Social Camp Astana, a national conference of non-profit organizations, in 2010. Photo courtesy of Vera Kim

Many university students – Kazakhstan’s largest bloc of volunteers -- have difficulty finding a meaningful part-time or summer job while earning their degree.

Meaningful volunteer work, such as helping orphans or the elderly, looks better on a resume than a job as a waiter or salesperson in a clothing shop, a lot of employers believe.

A key to whether volunteering can sink deep roots in Kazakhstan is a legal underpinning for the movement, Vera said.

She’s part of a working group of government and non-government people drafting a law on volunteerism.

The legislation will start with a definition of a volunteer. Other sections will include such topics as the status of volunteers and who can represent them.

The United Nations in Kazakhstan, which has been promoting volunteerism in the country for almost two decades, is among those working on the legislation.

Vera has already developed a road map for Kazakhstan’s volunteerism movement through 2017. The five-year plan includes targets that the National Volunteer Network wants to achieve.

An indication of how far volunteerism has to go is the fact that only 15 non-profit organizations across Kazakhstan are affiliated with the National Volunteer Network, Vera said. They have a combined volunteer force of a few hundred people, she said.

Vera Kim with volunteers Nariman Kalikov and Irina Bobkova at the Our Contribution to Sustainable Development campaign in 2011. Photo courtesy of Vera Kim

Vera Kim with volunteers Nariman Kalikov and Irina Bobkova at the Our Contribution to Sustainable Development campaign in 2011. Photo courtesy of Vera Kim

Affiliation with the network gives non-profits that want to use volunteers access to training and funding for some of their activities, Vera said.

The National Volunteer Network considers the training it offers to non-profit agencies that want to use volunteers among its most important services, Vera said.

The sessions, often held in Astana, Almaty or other central locations, involve “training the trainers.” The idea is for the “graduates” to return to their non-profits and train others in the skills they’ve picked up.

Vera became a volunteer in 2000 when she was just 17 by joining other students at Pavlodar State University who were helping battered women, orphans and older people.

She was so committed to volunteering by the time she graduated that the economic major’s senior thesis was “The Economic Impact of Volunteers in Kazakhstan.”

Vera quickly learned that you don’t have to have expertise in a subject to become a productive volunteer – just a desire to help.

She noted that volunteers can help orphans simply by reading to them, for example. “Everyone else has relatives or friends to help them with school,” she said. “Orphans don’t.”

Reading to orphans makes them feel like someone cares about them, and can stoke their desire to learn, she said.

Other volunteers at Pavlodar State University recognized Vera’s leadership abilities, and in 2006 she started the Pavlodar Volunteer Center.

Unlike the situation in the United States and other Western countries, where private donations are the main source of non-profits’ financing, Pavlodar’s Mayor’s Office provided most of the Pavlodar Volunteer Center’s budget.

That situation wasn’t unique. Kazakhstan’s non-profits get most of their funding from governments. Grants from international organizations and fund-raisers account for most of the rest.

A perception problem is one of the reasons that organizations with volunteers find it more difficult than it needs to be to obtain funding, Vera said. That perception is that with a sizable volunteer work force, a non-profit doesn’t need much of a budget.

But it takes money to recruit and train volunteers and to make them comfortable with what they’re doing, Vera pointed out.

Raising money for volunteer efforts has been such a problem in her years in the movement that she’s often spent her own money on those efforts.

It wasn’t until last year, she noted, that the national government began funding volunteerism.

Another obstacle besides financing that Vera’s had to overcome is the skepticism of friends.

“They couldn’t understand why I was helping others for no money,” she said. “And they wondered why I would deliberately choose to become involved in the problems of people I didn’t know.”

At times she’s heard “no, no, no” to the point that she’s wanted to give up, she said. But she has come to realize that if you want to do good, you have to stay the course, she said.

An important inspiration is her parents’ support. They’ve encouraged her because they’ve recognized how important volunteerism was to her.

Vera moved to Astana in 2006, joining the non-profit organization Zhasyl El, whose main function is city beautification efforts, including planting trees.

She became head of the volunteer program at the Civil Alliance, an umbrella organization of more than 400 non-profit organizations nationwide, in 2010.

Another milestone came last year, when the National Volunteer Network was officially designated a non-profit organization.

Vera said the longtime educational efforts of committed volunteers like her have led to more Kazakhs understanding what volunteerism is and the benefits it offers.

“More of the general population are understanding what it is, and more people in government are understanding it,” she said.

That gives her hope that a critical mass will be reached soon that leads to volunteering taking off in Kazakhstan.

When that happens, she’s convinced, the winners will be not only those served by volunteers, but the many new volunteers in the movement.

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