The irony of volunteering

Issues, 2007-08 No. 1

On top of an old van, a group of Muslim and Christian women traversed across Maguindanao. Other women waited at midday by the open-air ferry terminal in Northern Samar. Some trekked mountain trails or crossed murky rivers in the hinterlands. Their mission: to administer the oral polio vaccine to children and bring the Balik Patak, Kontra Polio campaign closest to the households.

They are not medical professionals in medical missions or overseas Filipinos in outreach programs. They are barangay health workers, christened “everyday heroines” and “foot soldiers” in the battle against the mutant polio virus.

These health workers and the community-based barangay nutrition scholars and day care workers are considered barangay volunteers in our country.

Their activities fall within the defining characteristics of volunteering. Their work is not undertaken primarily for financial reward though token payment is given. It is undertaken voluntarily, and it benefits others or society at large. At least 70,000 barangay volunteers give national pride when we proclaim their number in international exchanges and say that volunteerism has always been a cultural tradition we call bayanihan.

But the problem of poverty and the immense task of delivering quality services present a different picture.

Barangay volunteers confirm that they do not view their work as volunteer effort. Realities beckon: their work is additional income for their families, however meager the honorarium. Consistently, their concerns have been the overdue allowances, out-of-their-pocket expenses, or insecurity of their tenure.

The average barangay volunteer works for 20 years, sustaining the delivery of services in our country for at least 40 years now. The reach of their work is more expansive and bears more impact than any service delivery institution as they help Filipino families meet minimum basic needs: health and nutrition of its members, and early education of the very young.

Volunteering has thus become rudimentary for the survival of Filipino individuals and this nation. Such is the irony.

As we celebrate National Volunteer Month this December, we enjoin local governments to realize a key concept and principle in volunteering: Volunteers are key actors and their nurturance is crucial in continuing volunteer work. How well have we taken care of our barangay volunteers?

Copyright 2007

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