Putting their hands up
JitArsa is banking on volunteers donating what we all have: time
When Sorrayut Ratanapojnard was at the Flood Relief Centre at Don Muang last year, his fellow volunteers asked one question more than any other: “What can I do to help?”
JitArsa Bank co-founders Sorrayut Ratanapojnard, Teerapol Temudom and Chollada Thongtawee.
He said the question spoke volumes about Thailand’s social psyche.
“When people are willing and committed to help others, it is a pledge to go beyond oneself. And to me, it’s an indicator of a secure society,” he said.
People were more than willing to offer help, but were unsure what to do. Sorrayut began to wonder how to nurture the volunteer spirit.
“It was very chaotic and unorganised, which was very heart-rending. From the tsunami in 2004 to the flood in 2011, the efficiently-organised volunteer system we wished to see was still underdeveloped.”
He recalled the day before the tsunami when he, then a manager of spiritual health promotion, called for a meeting among social activists to brainstorm ways to reverse the slump in volunteerism.
“A day after our meeting, the tsunami hit,” he said.
The gigantic waves became an accidental answer as many people showed their willingness to help out on scene.
Yet the movement was temporary and proved unable to cope with last year’s flooding. Sorrayut and two friends, Teerapol Temudom and Chollada Thongtawee, have turned the volunteer-inspired question “What can I do to help?” into a time bank, called JitArsa (Volunteer Spirit), where people can pledge time to help meet social needs. Supported by the Thai Health Promotion Foundation, JitArsa Bank offers a platform, both online and offline, for individuals and organisations to match skills with the tasks at hand, and cultivate spiritual growth and social transformation.
“Through volunteerism, we wish to see a spiritually awakened and socially engaged citizen,” they said.
BANKING ON TIME
Instead of money, JitArsa Bank trades in a vital capital of life and society _ time.
“Time is evenly distributed to people, rich or poor, young or old, educated or not. All of us have this resource to pledge,” said Sorrayut.
Teerapol, the acting manager of JitArsa Bank, added: “We’d like the public to reflect on time and how we spend it. Time is connected to the value we give in our life. We always have time for things or people we care about, don’t we? Well, what do we care about?”
There are plenty of social needs waiting to be fulfilled and Teerapol said users will definitely find an organisation that will suit their interests and skills.”As for the time bank system, the would-be volunteers can visit our website and pledge the amount of time and the available time they intend for volunteering, fill out their interests, skills and location, and the system will match them to the needed tasks with organisations.”
A staff member from the Holt Sahathai Foundation explains it this way: ”There’s a volunteer who cares about children but he doesn’t feel confident with babies, so he asked to be a handyman for the orphanage instead, which is very helpful and really needed.
”With limited funds and staff, it will be helpful if we can have skilled people helping us in many areas; be it routine office skills such as accountancy, media relations, you name it.”
Even retired senior citizens, who may have difficulty getting about, can become active volunteers too, added Sorrayut.
”Instead of being needy, they can become active volunteers. For instance, the elderly can help do some handicraft, knitting a cap for monks. And this they can do at home,” he said.
The online time bank system can support schools and businesses, now that volunteerism has become part of the curriculum and business corporate social responsibility scheme, said Teerapol.
Apart from individual time pledged and fulfilled, the website also shows the accumulated time pledged, overall time needed, and the total time that has been volunteered, collectively.
Another way to think of it is imagining 1,000 volunteers each pledging 10 hours a year on social services. That would make 10,000 hours or around 400 days of work a year to respond to social needs, solve or alleviate social problems that centralised political, economic, educational and religious institutions fail to address.
Being spiritual enthusiasts, the three founders, in their 40s, do not see volunteering as cheap labour or a way of having fun, but rather a rewarding and learning experience. Sorrayut calls it a ”mini epiphany”.
”Volunteering is a gateway to spiritual revolution,” said Sorrayut, also a member of New Consciousness group, founded by noted social critic Prof Prawese Wasi. ”In the face of suffering is a chance for a shift in consciousness.”
Chollada explained her experience at the tsunami disaster relief centre at Yan Yao temple in Phang Nga.
”Tragic circumstances brought out people’s goodness. Back then the whole town was, to me, a volunteering town. People were ready to help others, sharing water and food, taking people in their cars to places. The whole atmosphere was ideal to live in,” she beamed.
Volunteering helps people develop leadership and cultivate self-knowledge and self-worth, added Sorrayut. Neng, a slacker in class and a computer game addict, told of his inner journey when he was helping ailing children at a hospital in Bangkok.
”Before, I didn’t know what I could do for the benefit of others. Now, I realise there are so many things I can do and I am happy with myself.” After four months, his average grade rose from 0.5 to 2.8, and he paid more attention in class and become the head of a volunteer project in school.
Sorrayut said: ”Human beings search for the meaning of their lives and existence, self actualisation, so to speak. In society, we talk a lot about juvenile delinquency. It is partly because our lessons and schools are not challenging enough, we lack public learning spaces for children to hang out in. Encouraging our youth to be volunteers can be a creative outlet for their energy and provide them with a challenging learning experience.”
To foster spiritually awakened and socially engaged citizens, JitArsa Bank founders put their expertise and passion in contemplative education, spiritual development, and the reflective learning process into volunteering activities.
They offer training for volunteer organisations so they design learning activities to enhance volunteers’ quality of experience and understanding of complex social issues. Training includes dialogue, systems thinking, reflection, and knowledge management.
”We need allies to help us in social work. If we can make volunteers understand social problems, our work, and see the impact of what they do to society, they will become moved towards it and become regulars in volunteering with us. They will become our skilled and experienced supporters,” said Teerapol.
Staff in volunteer organisations need sustainable and strong support from the public. With limited funding and people, some work around the clock or without pay for months, said Chollada.
”They are dedicated and inspiring people, and we want to support them on their work so that they continue to do good things and still have a sense of a fulfilled life,” she said, adding that the bank also provides workshops that aim to help volunteers maintain a physical, emotional and spiritual equilibrium.
A SPIRITUAL CONNECTION
Another initiative of JitArsa Bank is VRM, or Volunteer Relation Management, which includes activities such as open days and dialogue sessions and exchanges on social networks.
”On open days, volunteers will learn more about organisations which work on particular social problems. It’s important for volunteers to understand the complexity of social problems,” said Chollada.
Teerapol added: ”Besides, we hope that volunteers can see that when they take care of their lives, their families, they are taking care of society.”
VRM events also serve as a platform to connect people, where those with similar interests and social concerns meet and share their views and values.
”[Having a] community of volunteers is important. In an urban, individualistic society, many feel isolated, which results in social problems,”said Teerapol.
When that community grows to become strong and efficient, society can be transformed. The more quality time each volunteer pledges to the time bank, the more secure society can become. And perhaps when another natural disaster strikes, we will be more ready.
”In order to survive and coexist, we need to cooperate,” said Sorrayut. ”That’s the spirit of volunteerism.”
JitArsa Bank’s website (www.jitarsabank.com) will be fully operational in September. Interested volunteers can leave their email on the website and be notified once the system starts. For now, details about the JitArsa movement are available at http://www.facebook.com/JitArsaBank.
The first Volunteer Open Day will be held on Thursday, from 8.30am to noon at Xavier Hall, Victory Monument. The theme for this month is volunteerism for children and youth. Invited organisations are the Holt Sahathai Foundation, the Foundation for Children with Disability and the Labour Rights Promotion Network Foundation.