14.12.2018 - On December 5, volunteers all over the Pacific celebrated International Volunteer Day. New volunteer Shonagh Lindsay writes about the day, here, and check out our photo gallery, below.

As a totally new volunteer in Timor-Leste, I sat up when I heard fellow volunteer Jeanette Daysh’s talk on International Volunteer Day. We were celebrating the day with AVP (formerly AVI) at the Plaza Hotel, in partnership with CVTL (Timor Leste Red Cross) and HNGV (Hospital Nacional Guido Valadares) who were there to take blood donations from volunteers. VSA has 30 volunteers working here across a wide range of partner organisations and assignments from small business advising, community engagement, building agricultural resilience to dance and art therapy for trauma sufferers.

The UN’s theme for International Volunteer Day this year is “Volunteers build resilient communities.” This fits perfectly alongside VSA’s Vision of “A world with thriving communities,” and was well illustrated by the number of volunteers happy to donate blood. Safe blood saves millions of lives each year but access to safe and sufficient blood supplies remains a challenge in many developing countries, including Timor-Leste. All over the world, it has been shown that regular, voluntary, non-remunerated donors from low-risk population groups are the safest sources of this precious, lifesaving material. In Timor, as in all of South East Asia, 100% of blood donations are screened for infectious diseases such as hepatitis, HIV/AIDS, and syphilis before further use.

I was recovering from a brief bout of gastroenteritis so was not one lining up to give blood. I’d also just begun my assignment at the Xanana Gusmão Reading Room after three weeks' morning Tetun classes. At the end of these, if I’d slept well the night before, I could greet someone, ask how much something cost, and hopefully ask directions if I got lost. But like any new volunteer, the big questions - would I be of any use in my assignment, understand what they needed from me and deliver by the end of my two-year contract -  were a long way off being answered.

So it was heartening to hear Jeanette Daysh, fellow VSA volunteer, talk of the larger, and smaller but no less important things that had already made her time with VSA here worthwhile. “When I really think about what volunteering means to me,” said Jeanette,  “I realize it’s more about having the chance to live alongside another community, sharing our ideas and different cultures... and sometimes introducing another way of doing things.”

When considering why she’d volunteered, Jeanette admitted that at first her reasons seemed entirely self-interested, shallow and all about her, and I’ll admit that my first few weeks here have definitely been all about me. Making my home comfortable, learning how to shop and eat healthily and cheaply, finding my way around by Mikrolet, and working out the convoluted phone/data system so that I don’t pay more than I need to stay in touch with the world. It’s also come as a shock to discover how unreliable and unpredictable the postal service is here, explaining to my 91 year-old mother, who all her life has written me letters, that they simply may not get to me.

But hang on, even in doing these things I’ve connected with others. I’ve started to get to know my fellow staff, talk to my Timorese neighbours and support local businesses whenever I can. We all have to start small and hopefully grow from there, and time spent going slowly (neineik neineik in Tetun) is never wasted time. Hopefully, from this necessarily self-focused start relationships will grow, to the point where like Jeanette, we new volunteers can also make a difference – not just in our assignments – but also in everyday interactions with neighbours, colleagues, and friends.

I can think of no greater satisfaction than in experiencing some of the interactions that Jeanette described: “being invited to hold an hour-old baby, knowing that the birthing kit you found them came in useful; knowing that the education you’ve given the old man you work with around the treatment of his reoccurring boils has given him relief for the first time in years; having your landlady arrive with fabulous food for you – just because she wants to…or being invited to a five-year-old’s birthday party and not being treated as a special guest but as part of the family.”

And what can be more valuable than donating life-giving blood? In Timor-Leste there is an urgent need for more people to donate blood on a regular basis to save lives and to strengthen blood services nationwide. Here, the majority of blood transfusions are needed for pregnancy-related complications, the treatment of traffic accident injuries, surgical operations and for patients with blood cancer.