#International Volunteers Week (2-8 Dec): More than just about giving something for nothing


The Million Happy Faces Project booth at Little Day Out 2011, a charity fundraiser for the underprivileged children at Publika on 20 December 2011

I have a confession to make. I have no idea there was such a thing as International Volunteers Day until I was asked to write something about it here.

Being more than just a little curious and enthusiastic about the state of volunteerism in this country, I naturally volunteered (pardon the pun).

While writing this piece, it forces me to ask two interesting questions. Why would people volunteer for anything and what makes them want to sign up for something at their own expense?

First up, volunteering isn’t quite as sexy or glamourous as it’s made out to be. Sure, there are times when volunteers get pampered with a nice meal, free T-shirts and goodie bags. Then there are other roles that see a volunteer getting their hands dirty, sometimes quite literally.

It takes a certain degree of optimism (some would say gullibility) to traipse through mud-covered peat swamps, brave insect bites and kilometre-long walks under the hot sun (or rain) at 8am for a tree planting exercise, all without the comfort of running water or toilets. Yet, there’s never a lack of volunteers, never mind the ungodly waking hours on a weekend and extra laundry to do after.

Some, like myself, are concerned about climate change and would like to do something to reduce our own carbon footprint. Others enjoy being in the outdoors, getting in touch with nature and the feeling of having a seedling in their hands while nurturing it to grow.

Volunteering automatically brings you closer to the cause you volunteered for. Whether it’s planting trees, teaching kids, working with refugees or being part of a booth crew, it’s a chance to see an issue through different eyes.

The environment, economy, human rights and social justice are all dicey, heavy subjects. When you get an opportunity to work with children’s welfare for instance, you see first-hand why the issue is so pressing and needs to be addressed.  You often feel thankful for the people who will willingly devote their time and money into championing a cause without any thought of personal gain or glory.

For a volunteer, seeing your work having an impact is its own reward. It can even be fun.

As part of the Million Happy Faces Project, I have to somehow coax people to put on funny faces and bring out smiles in front of a camera. As if that isn’t humiliating enough, their pictures are posted on Facebook and used as a backdrop for the photo booth. Sounds like a pretty embarrassing task, right? Well, you’d be surprised. There are plenty of people who would willingly (some less so) set their reservations aside and put on some of their wackiest and happiest expressions for the camera.  Clichéd as it may sound, the mood gets infectious and you’d have to be pretty cynical not to be smiling yourself by the end of the day.

Some say volunteering is an opportunity to meet people with like-minded interests. Or maybe that’s another way of saying you get to meet attractive people. I can’t imagine how one can possibly snag a boy/girlfriend at a tree planting session by getting knee deep in mud and stinking to high heaven afterwards in a shared car. But hey, sometimes volunteer work requires annoyingly undying optimism and possibly some degree of shamelessness.

If you meet a cute guy or gal along the way, at least they’ll know how you look like at your messiest (some would call it rugged), although it may all go downhill from there.

In all seriousness though, it’s empowering to meet other volunteers who are just as passionate about an issue that matters to you. Volunteers are people indulging their passion or curiosity, and at times it brings out a side that you may never see on a regular working day.

Voluntarism does not discriminate when it comes to age, ethnicity and social standing. If anything, it brings different people together in one common purpose. Very often, trying to create social change is met with hardship, sometimes even derision and ridicule. So being able to put names and faces to other people working together towards a common cause is a powerful and sometimes, a necessary incentive to keep going.

In an age and society where money talks, volunteering for anything seems almost like an oxymoron and sounds like an excuse to be manipulated into doing free work. It certainly can feel that way when a major, for profit event is run by unpaid volunteers. But I also see voluntarism as an indicator of our society’s health. If we get to a point where nobody is willing to do anything unless they’re being paid, what will that say about our society and ourselves as human beings? Thank goodness, we’re nowhere near that, and the spirit of voluntarism remains strong, even gaining momentum as more people see a need to feel connected to issues impacting our society.

Voluntarism is a cycle of giving out, of empowering others and finding self-empowerment in the process.


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Tang Chun Cheuh was a volunteer during the first round of the Malaysian Youth Climate Justice Network (MYCJN)’s Conversations On Climate (COC) in 2009. Since then, he has been actively involved as a moderator, writer, on-the-ground activist and communications liaison for MYCJN, The Million Happy Faces Project, Eco Warriors Malaysia and Help Our Penyu (HOPE). He enjoys working with youths and the young at heart in matters relating to social, economic and environmental justice within and across borders. For more information about some causes he has volunteered for, please visit : The Million Happy Faces Project (www.facebook.com/MillionHappyFaces ), The Malaysian Youth Climate Justice Network (MYCJN) (www.mycjn.org) and Eco Warriors Malaysia (www.facebook.com/groups/ecowarriorsmalaysia/)

Posted on 5 December 2011. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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