Volunteerism: Changing lives
Jeneard Williamson, education and special needs officer at Digicel Foundation, volunteers to help beautify Bethlehem Home in downtown Kingston. (Photo: Meikle Meiks)

Volunteerism is about so much more than "giving back". What does it mean on a personal level?

Education and special needs officer at Digicel Foundation Jeneard Williamson has coordinated and managed volunteer activities since 2014, forging close friendships along the way.

"My first experience was volunteering at the Digicel 5K run for special needs," says Williamson. "It was a large event and I was both nervous and excited. When the day came, I met many people who, over the years, have now become very close friends. It was an eye-opening experience that showed me the impact that even small acts of kindness can have on those in need. I helped register members of our special needs community for the event, while managing all persons with special needs on the day. It was very satisfying to have helped people who are like family to me to participate."

Hundreds of Digicel staff members have been the heart and soul of Digicel Foundation projects over the years. The volunteers pitched in with painting, building, cleaning, sweeping, beautifying, and completely transforming spaces.

It's not always about physical work and showing off one's skills, however. An important part of what our volunteers do is less tangible. You might see someone encouraging a nervous student to try a technology platform at his school's brand new SMART room. Volunteers might join an impromptu football game in a community that is benefiting from a foundation programme. You might find a volunteer halfway up a ladder, paint brush in hand; wrapping a Christmas gift for a child with special needs; or kneeling to plant a tree in an urban park.

Miguel "Steppa" Williams, the foundation's community development manager, has fond memories of a Labour Day project at Wilmington Basic School in St Thomas. For him, the day was all about community — and family.

"This was a rural community with a big heart. The parents, children, staff, and community members showed so much gratitude and prepared a first-class meal for all volunteers…

"Besides the gratitude from the community, my wife and children were volunteering on that day. This moment has stuck with them as they were actively involved. Several years later, the children still say: 'Dad, do you remember when we went to that nice community in St Thomas and painted the school?' "

Digicel's commitment to volunteerism dates back to November 2004, with the foundation's very first activity at the opening of the Lakes Pen Basic School in St Catherine, rebuilt in partnership with the Jamaica Social Investment Fund (JSIF). On that occasion, energetic volunteers worked alongside community members to complete the project in record time.

For board director Marlene Wilson, it's been a mixture of emotions.

"It has been an honour and a pleasure to be a volunteer. I am beaming with pride, joy and happiness, and sometimes sadness," she shares.

"One experience that stood out for me was Surfing for Autism. A friend of mine was crying and when I asked her why, she told me that only since she became a volunteer did she realise that her son was autistic... For me, seeing parents and caregivers of children with disabilities having their children attend a school that caters to their needs is very rewarding."

A United Nations report a few years ago described the important values that volunteerism embraces — solidarity, reciprocity, mutual trust, a feeling of belonging, being a part of something worthwhile, and empowerment. All these enhance the quality of life for all.

Simply put, volunteering is about people; building new relationships, cementing old ones, finding new friends, and helping them. That is a recipe for all-round well-being.

They say action speak louder than words, and volunteerism makes a strong statement.

Volunteering brings joy also to the volunteer all while bringing about positive change for the many communities and individuals they serve.

"Now, I look forward to volunteering…because I know that what I am doing will make a big difference in someone's life," says Williamson.

Charmaine Daniels is CEO of Digicel Jamaica Foundation.

Charmaine Daniels

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