x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Volunteer 'angels' boost charities' finances

The hard work of volunteer people and businesses save millions of dirhams.

DUBAI // A volunteer group is proving that it is possible to help thousands of people without raising a fil. Between them, Volunteers in Dubai (VID) and Volunteers in Abu Dhabi (VIAD) provide almost daily help to 138 special needs organisations, without doing any fund-raising or donating any cash. Instead they are armed only with a contact list of almost 10,000 people and businesses.

The founder, Lola Lopez, estimates the groups did more than 30,000 hours of volunteer work and saved UAE charitable organistions Dh2.7 million over the past year alone. "We are here to help charities spend their money more wisely and, where possible, not spend it at all," she said. Recently, for example, a support group for parents of children and adults with Down's Syndrome needed two new laptops. Instead of buying them new, All 4 Downsyndrome contacted Ms Lopez.

She sent out an e-mail to her thousands of contacts and by the next day she had two donated machines which another member, an IT technician, cleaned up and installed with the latest software. "I guess I saved them at least Dh2,000 in one day," said Ms Lopez. Another time, Senses Dubai, a special needs care home, had no cereal for the following morning's breakfast. They called Ms Lopez, who changed her status on Facebook. Within three hours she was delivering 80 cereal boxes to the centre.

"I think so many people want to do good but sometimes they just don't know how. Through my groups I facilitate it so they can do it in a flexible manner, there is no pressure if they want to help and can help then great, if not then maybe they will next time." VID began three years ago when Ms Lopez, who was working in the aviation sector, decided to get a group of friends together and begin volunteering in the community. She approached charities and offered the group's services and before long was regularly organising her friends to help whenever possible.

As word spread, more people joined her group and she quit her job to dedicate her time to managing them. "The nuts and bolts of what we do is save charities money, because everything has a value, and if I can take the time to get something for free then I can add value to that charity or support group." Nadia Khalil al Sayegh, the general manager of Senses Dubai, a residential care home for 80 children and adults with special needs, said Volunteers in Dubai had given her and the centre enormous help and support.

"They are perfect people," she said. "They save me and my staff time, money and most importantly, stress." Ms al Sayegh said when she had to move the centre's location last month nearly 200 volunteers helped to clean and set up new furniture and transfer all their belongings in two days. "They were angels," she said. "We could never have done it without them." Most weeks Ms Lopez takes groups of 50 or more special needs patients and volunteers to Wild Wadi water park, the cinema or Ski Dubai as part of a project called Funday Sundays. She also gets creative with corporations to help them increase their social responsibility.

"Last year Crocs the shoe maker came to us and asked us to put on a sale for their end of season stock and they were planning on donating the proceeds to charity. However, because I don't fundraise I agreed to do the sale on the condition that for every pair of old stock we sold they would give us a brand new pair." She was given 8,100 pairs of shoes, and spent the next 12 months sending out groups of volunteers to distribute them to kids at special needs centres.

"It would have been much easier for both of us to simply donate cash but doing it this way involves the whole community plus it is fulfilling a direct need. You never know exactly where cash is going but with products it is clear." VID and VIAD have of late been focusing corporations, encouraging companies to allow their employees to do volunteer work on company time. "If I find 10 people a day for a month to work at a care home or another charitable organisation I can save them around Dh45,000," said Ms Lopez. "So then I tell the manager of a company that by doing without his secretary for one morning one day a month he is adding to that sum. It's good for both sides."

Alia Galadari, 20, has been volunteering with VID since they began. Miss Galadari, an Emirati medical student in Dubai, said working with Ms Lopez's organisation gave her more than just personal satisfaction. "It helps me connect with other nationalities as well," she said. "We are in a multicultural city and through working together we can learn about each other, expand our personalities and look at things from different angles. As an Emirati, I also think its important for people to see we can be welcoming and kind in order to redress misconceptions."