x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Teen life: A volunteer is not always welcome

Being a willing volunteer is not the same as being a wanted volunteer.

Over the past year, I have come to realise how difficult it is for young teenagers to do some community service in Dubai. You would imagine that there would be hundreds of people out there in need of help, but it's not as easy as simply walking over to a charity centre and demanding that you be given some work to do. Much as I would like people to believe that I have turned into a good citizen who is deeply concerned about the well-being of my fellow residents, the only reason I started looking for a place to do charitable work at was to fulfill a requirement for the Duke of Edinburgh's Award I'm trying to get.

I mean, I care and all, but I'm not the kind who walks around door to door every Saturday afternoon ringing doorbells and trying to sell biscuits to people I've just woken up from their weekend siestas. After being told by K9, Feline Friends and the Al Noor centre for special needs that I was too young to be a volunteer, I had to resort to desperate methods. "I'll water your garden twice a day," I pleaded with my uncomfortable-looking neighbours. "I'll do odd jobs; fetch your shopping, I'll clean out all that rubbish in your garage, you know, do little things for free, as long as you write me a report and sign your name on it."

Turned out, of course, that the stuff in their garage wasn't rubbish after all but pieces of art their toddler son had been making. Sometimes it feels like it's just me these things happen to. I was curtly notified that the little darling is inclined towards sculpture and, no thanks, they didn't need any help. "I'll pay you to take me on!" I yelled behind their retreating figures, but as Mum languidly told a dejected me later, I shouldn't try to get hired by someone who knows me. Apparently I'm the kind of person who would take out all the petunias and the drip irrigation pipe thingummies as well as trying to weed the garden.

So I ended up adding my name to a long waiting list of volunteers at the school library. There are only so many people at a time, the librarian says, whom she can keep track of at once. Volunteers mean extra work for her instead of lightening her workload. They need to learn the system and then, for fear that they will mess it up, be followed around so they don't try eating the books or indulge in other unexplained activities teenagers are prone to.

Knowing that my chances of getting a place as a volunteer in the school library were slim, I instead started helping out in The Old Library, in the Mall of the Emirates. My first day there was, well, fairly straightforward. I was shown the ropes by some lovely ladies, all very nice, and it seemed easy enough. I began by straightening out the kids' section. This was not an exceptionally Herculean task, but if you have ever had to make sure that about a few thousand books are in alphabetical order, you would know that interesting is not the adjective you would ascribe to the job.

To make matters worse, my literary tastes are adapted to Peter Rabbit well enough for me to be unable to resist having a quick browse every now and then. I was quietly, I thought, guffawing to myself over an Asterix comic (I was working in the kids' section - it wasn't like I had a choice) when an enquiring head presented itself over my shoulder. "Goscinny," it told me severely, "is on that shelf." I stood there with my mouth hanging open for a few minutes until I realised I was being told to put the book in its rightful place. I momentarily celebrated the fact that I hadn't been caught reading after all and had successfully managed to look like I was wondering where to put the book, until the head continued with a laughing "and no reading on duty". Now I definitely know it is just me.

After finishing my two hours of walking to and fro from the book return stand to various shelves around the library, I made a point of settling down in one of the comfy chairs with a book, and smiling sweetly at other volunteers who were still on duty (I am a member of the library). This sort of thing tends to gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling deep inside. Lavanya Malhotra is a 15-year-old student in Dubai.