‘I just pulled our people right out of there. I said, “This is not on.”’ There’s no messing with Lola Lopez. When she took 50 volunteers from Dubai to the RAK Marathon last month, all of whom had risen at the crack of dawn to lend their services as marshals, she was disgusted to find that half of them were being asked to stand in front of the toilets and count how many people went in. ‘They hadn’t given up their day to monitor toilets,’ she says. It’s just one of many horror stories Lopez has come across, another being when she discovered a local charity was spending Dhs20,000 on models for an advertising campaign. She contacted the charity and insisted that they let her find them volunteer models instead. It was this incident that led her to set up Volunteer in Dubai (VID), an organisation dedicated entirely to providing local charities with volunteers and making sure that those volunteers are used properly.
Abdullah Al Hourani, a project manager by day, had found volunteering difficult before contacting VID. ‘I’d been searching for volunteering opportunities to make me feel human, so that I’m not just a machine, you know?’ he tells Time Out. ‘But it was quite complex. I’d be told to fill in papers, and that I’d be called back, but I wouldn’t hear anything.’ Lopez explains that VID’s role is to manage volunteering so that both volunteers and charities get the most out of the relationship. Al Hourani confirms that it works. ‘The experience with VID is very different,’ he says. ‘You really feel that your skills have been used in a perfect way. It’s very important volunteer work that we do.’
Lopez, who offers her services for free, sends volunteers to help out at all sorts of events, from chaperoning weekly trips to the cinema with special needs children from Jumeirah’s Senses Residential Care Home to large-scale events such as last year’s Pink Walkathon for breast cancer. Because Lopez knows her database of volunteers so well, she can match the right people to a charity’s needs, as well as offering opportunities that match with volunteers’ schedules. ‘Even if you only want to volunteer once a year, that’s okay,’ Lopez says. ‘We’re happy to see you.’
Sabina Khandwani, who founded the Dubai-based breast cancer awareness programme Safe & Sound, says that VID saved her ‘not only time, but headaches’. Lopez sent 100 volunteers to help out at Safe & Sound’s Pink Walkathon, with people from VID not only assisting with crowd control, but helping to collect money, hand out water and organise the performers who put on a family fun day at the end of the walk. ‘Each year, the Pink Walkathon is one of the biggest community events in Dubai,’ says Khandwani. ‘It’s usually an expensive logistical exercise. We used volunteers for the first time last year after VID approached us. The experience was wonderful – they did a fantastic job. These people are very dedicated and they don’t accept any money. That’s a pretty difficult combination to find!’
While it’s important that VID helps charities to do more and spend less, it’s equally important that Lopez and her team offer a great experience for those that are volunteering. As volunteer D’bora Knight tells us, direction and guidance from VID has motivated her to do even more volunteer work. It’s also put her in touch with more charities than she ever knew existed here in the UAE. ‘I didn’t know about the women’s refuge, or the soup canteens for the homeless in Ajman,’ she says. ‘There’s so much going on in the area that people don’t know about.’
Despite a tough 2009 in view of the financial crisis, VID is looking to expand with VIDA, or Volunteer in Dubai Abroad. Lopez explains that she’s been approached by scores of people who want to volunteer internationally, but says she is reluctant to send volunteers to places without having checked them out first. Step forward Time Out’s publisher, ITP, which has sponsored VID’s Stephanie Belair to spend a week volunteering in an orphanage in Tanzania so she can report on volunteering opportunities there for VIDA. (We’ll bring you all the news from Belair when she gets back.) Lopez also hopes to send people on similar fact-finding trips to Bangladesh and Nepal. Watch this space…
To volunteer for charity through Volunteer in Dubai, call 04 432 1876 or see www.volunteerindubai.com for the latest opportunities.