“Volunteering is about building the type of society we know is possible,” says Giselle Mendez of the Volunteer Centre of Trinidad and Tobago (VCTT), by “touching lives and shifting minds.” But how does a ‘people-centred’ organisation, whose model revolves around in-person interaction and connection navigate a global pandemic? For VCTT, the story of COVID-19 is not about locking down or simply standing still, waiting to see what will happen. It is a story of pivoting to a “new normal” of interaction while still connecting people and protecting clients. With these adjustments, the VCTT can remain focussed on matching volunteers to organisations deploying the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) framework to build back a better Caribbean society, post COVID-19.
The VCTT’s mission is to connect people to causes and organisations aligned to the global sustainable development vision. Based in Trinidad and Tobago and run by a coordinating collective, the Centre has been matching trained volunteers to development organisations across the Caribbean through an online hub over the past eight years. Since 2015, when the global development vision was articulated through Agenda 2030 and its implementing Goals, the VCTT’s core clients have become those Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and Community Based Organisations (CBOs) that have oriented their operations around the SDG model. During this time, the Centre has developed projects positioning volunteer service as a critical driver of sustainable development action. The onset of COVID-19 changed the mechanics of this service and forced VCTT to find new ways of connecting people.
As with any disaster or traumatic event, there has been a surge of persons willing to offer their time, energy and expertise to “help out” during this crisis. This outpouring of support accompanies the increased need for assistance to overcome the economic, social and psychological shocks that the COVID-19 pandemic has delivered, and which have touched everyone everywhere. The VCTT response has been to redesign its service around virtual volunteering. For while the Centre has always linked clients to volunteers and anchored its Caribbean volunteer exchange project in its online hub, volunteer service delivery has usually been tangibly direct and in-person. Now that the need for volunteer support is greater than before, but in circumstances that preclude close physical interaction, the VCTT has had to adapt its model so it can continue to fulfill its service mandate while protecting the health and safety of its volunteers.
In addition to virtual volunteering, new restrictive norms for physical interaction and hygiene have pushed the Centre to move specific initiatives fully online. An example is their ‘Many to One’ mentorship intervention, which was developed to connect students of four secondary schools in Trinidad and Tobago with a “family” of mentors and was underway when COVID-19 struck. “We had to assess not engaging with those we said we would serve … 30 young persons from four secondary schools … and understanding the risks associated with that,” says Ms. Mendez. These were “vulnerable young people in vulnerable homes, coming from vulnerable communities,” who needed the guidance and support of the mentorship project now, during these precarious times, more than ever. “Our organisation decided that we couldn’t sit on that.” So, they remodeled the project into an e-mentorship intervention to allow both the mentors and mentees to connect regularly but from a safe physical distance. They are currently developing this online tool in time for a July launch.
An older project is the Caribbean Volunteer eXchange programme (CVX), which was created by the VCTT to educate about volunteer opportunities across the Caribbean, facilitate volunteer exchanges and
encourage participants to embrace an identity as active Caribbean citizens. COVID-19 travel restrictions and closed borders have made these exchanges impossible for the foreseeable future. Focused in the present context on sustainability and impact, the VCTT has leveraged its partnership with Israel-based Ruach Tova to mobilise regional volunteer efforts using the Good Deeds Day platform. Connected through this online campaign, the VCTT and other regional partners in Curaçao (Spread the Love Curaçao), Guyana (Guyana Volunteer Support Platform), Dominica (I Have a Right Foundation) and Haiti (Activeh) were able to provide direct outreach and support to the most vulnerable populations in countries affected by the pandemic.
As it pivots to ensure safe yet effective mobilisaton of volunteers and innovates to continue to engage stakeholders, the VCTT is clear and vocal about the inspiration behind its call to action: the Sustainable Development Goals. For Ms. Mendez, the VCTT’s Founder and Chief Volunteer, the core of volunteerism is “breaking it down to every single person” that can play a role in creating the change they want to see in their communities. For her and the VCTT, the five key Pillars that underpin the SDGs – People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace and Partnership – are fundamental to not only navigating the pandemic but also planning for a post-COVID-19 Trinidad and Tobago, and Caribbean.
The effective engagement of people in governments, organisations and communities is required to rebuild stronger, more resilient communities and countries. As a connector of people to impactful causes that support the Sustainable Development Goals, the VCTT is working through the SDG framework to fulfil its repurposed, post-pandemic mandate. It has staked its territory and defined its contribution to #BuildBackBetterCaribbean.