Still volunteering at 50


unv22 June 2009, Hanoi - In a departure from his usual routine, Indra spent a week of breaks and lunchtimes trawling the offices of other UN agencies in Ha Noi, collecting communication and educational materials. In the days to come, these materials would be put to use in displays at the volunteer fair – the second part of International Volunteer Day 2008 (IVD) celebration in Ha Noi.

Indra is a 54 year old international UNV volunteer – Food Safety Specialist working for the World Health Organization (WHO) in Ha Noi.

Two years ago, Indra made the decision to come and volunteer in Viet Nam, as it was a country that had some similarities to his homeland of Nepal. Both are Asian developing countries, both suffer from problems arising from a less than satisfactory level of awareness of food safety issues. And in Viet Nam, food safety is acknowledged as a major public health concern. He came to Ha Noi after 2 years working as a Food Technology Specialist in Swaziland in Southern Africa.

For Indra, the right to food is a basic human right, and the provision of safe and nutritious food to those in need is every bit as important, as we all know, as are the right to protection, shelter, education, justice and water. It is in upholding this primary right where Indra found his professional calling.

During two years in Viet Nam, one of Indra’s main areas of responsibility was to provide technical support to national counterparts in developing and implementing food safety regulations. He also played a key role as lecturer and facilitator in training activities, workshops, and seminars, organized by WHO and partners on food safety in many provinces in Viet Nam. Indra is a passionate advocate of the importance of food safety on a national level, and he argues that governments could save a lot of money they currently spend on disease prevention by improving the quality and safety of food and sanitation. He is happy to report that the Government of Viet Nam has begun to recognize this and is taking appropriate measures.

Indra’s family also joined him in Viet Nam, and this is a success story of adapting to new surroundings: his daughter, on visit from medical school in Australia, was charmed by the people and the culture; his wife and five year old son accompanied him to his first UNV Annual Workshop, in the Tam Dao mountains; and little Aditya impressed the other volunteers with some memorable dancing. In addition, Indra’s wife has been able to find work with a local volunteer organization working with women’s groups.

Indra was the oldest member of the team preparing for IVD celebration 2008 in Ha Noi. And with age comes experience; Indra had previously participated in IVD celebrations in Nepal and was a dab hand at setting up. Assigned in the ‘material display’ group with Indra was Nguyen Duy Hung, a member of the Talking Green Club – a local volunteer group focused on raising environmental awareness.

Helped in no small measure by the clement weather, Indra and Hung’s outside display drew lots of attention on the IVD fair. It featured various issues that the UN is working on in Viet Nam such as HIV prevention, food security, and reproductive health... The leaflets and posters provided some basic information on these areas. The reward for the efforts of the many participants was a large and curious crowd of visitors, keen to grab presenters and practitioners for a few seconds of their time and find out more information about what they were doing, how, where and occasionally why.

This was the first time that Hung had ever come face to face with a volunteer who was the same age as his parents. Most people think volunteering is just for young people. Still, Indra and other volunteers his age, through their commitment and their application, are reversing that perception. Hung says: “Indra told me that he had learned a lot about my club, and that he had been there at our 3rd birthday celebrations to show his support and encouragement. I was filled with delight and surprise when hearing that. Although he has involved in all sorts of volunteer activities in Nepal and in Viet Nam and has loads of professional experience, still, at this age, Indra is so humble and always wants to learn from others, even younger. And I think that young volunteers like me can take many valuable lessons, like this humble attitude, from such older and experienced volunteers.” After two years of volunteering in Viet Nam, Indra says that he still wants to work in another volunteer assignment. Indra is also a life member of Returned United Nation Volunteer Association of Nepal (RUNVAN) currently involved in volunteer activities in Nepal for the restoration of peace.

This story shows that age is no obstacle to volunteerism. Everyone can volunteer, no matter how old they are as long as there is a will to do something good for the community and others. More often than not, with age comes a range of professional experiences which are fundamental to upholding the high standards of volunteering worldwide. The strength of volunteerism is not only demonstrated in the vast achievements that millions of volunteers are making around the world, but also the inspiration and positive influence that one generation is able to give to the next.

- By Luu Thi Ngoc Anh