Volunteers with a Purpose

29 June 2000

In bright blue T-shirts, they stand at every corner, rushing to help with computer problems, transport questions - whatever. In fact, some participants at the Social Summit say they cannot do without them. The description fits several hard-working people between the ages of 16 and 80, some of them travelling from as far away as Japan and Senegal. They have come together in Geneva to work as volunteers to make life a little easier for the Summit participants.

Magda Boon-Denes is 78 and speaks seven different languages. The elegantly dressed women sites at a booth in the International Conference Centre ready to offer her assistance to anyone in need of help. "I come in a little after lunch and leave at 6 in the evening," she says. "I volunteered to help out at the Social Summit because I wanted to contribute to social development and also because I enjoy meeting different people."

Marcia Calgary, 26, who works in Geneva, volunteers as a receptionist. She says her most fulfilling job since this meeting started was helping a Kenyan delegate who had come to the Summit with only 30 Swiss francs in his pocket." With that kind of allowance, he did not have a place to stay or could hardly manage his meals. I calmed him down and helped him by finding a host family which solved most of his problems," she says.

The volunteer project is the brainchild of Viola Krebs who lives in Geneva. She says the programme started in 1997 and since then with her volunteers have worked at 18 conferences.

Volunteers are given a free meal and accommodation is arranged for them with families in countries where the conferences are being held. They must pay their own way from their home countries. Many try to tie in their vacation plans with the programme and Krebs says she works around their schedule. In the end all parties are happy with the arrangement.

Keiko Suzuki, from Japan, who travelled to this conference from London where she is studying social development, says she has learnt a lot during her work. "I have no regrets. It is a give and take process which makes it all the more rewarding."

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