Volunteers program in trouble

Published December 1, 2001

Returned Volunteer in Mission Linda Campbell shown with students of St. Augustine English Medium Primary Schools in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, where she served as principal.

Volunteers in Mission, the Anglican program that sends Canadians to work with overseas partners, has a dearth of volunteers for the first time in its 14-year history.

General Synod staff who coordinate the volunteers are concerned that fears over the future of the national church have cast a chill over the program.

“We usually have three or four applicants in the process, which might include couples,” said Ellie Johnson, director of partnerships, “but it has slowed down in the past two years.”

Volunteers in Mission is promoted by word-of-mouth and through the magazine, MinistryMatters. Approved as an outreach program by General Synod in 1986, VIM enables people of different ages, backgrounds, skills and professions to offer themselves for voluntary service overseas for two years. In late October 34 positions remained unfilled. VIM responds to requests for qualified volunteers to fill specific needs, which are identified by partner churches and institutions.

Seventy volunteers have gone to countries in Africa and Asia as nurses, theological lecturers, a principal of schools, a farm manager, child care workers, teachers, clergy, a medical doctor, an archivist and a librarian since the program began. The first volunteer, Irene Ty of Toronto went to the Amity Foundation in China to teach English as a second language.

There are presently seven adults and one child “in the field,” but none in the application process pipeline. “We’ve been working to encourage applications. We are still in business,” Ms. Johnson said. Members of Partners in Mission are supposed to promote the program in their own dioceses, and volunteers whose term is over give talks after they have come back, Ms. Johnson said.

Among the positions awaiting volunteers to fill them are: a tutor in agriculture in Uganda, a diocesan administrator in the province of West Africa, an ESL teacher in Tanzania, and a youth coordinator in Madagascar.

The average overseas stint is two years, and volunteers are expected to raise half their costs before they leave the country. A parish support group raises the other half.

The support group has a treasurer who sends funds to the volunteer every three months, following a carefully prepared budget.

Occasionally a volunteer arrives at a posting to find that their allotted living allowance is not enough. “In that case, they write back to the support group and let them know, and the support group raises more money to send over. It has happened before, and it always works out,” said Clementina Thomas, staff coordinator for VIM.

National staff provide administrative support and guidance for the program, but no longer handle funding because of uncertainty around the future of the national church office.

“It’s strictly the support group which handles the money now,” Ms. Thomas said.

The program has been popular among its volunteers, some of whom go back again and again. “At the beginning most went for 18 months,” said Ms. Johnson, “but they would usually ask for an extension.” After an evaluation, VIM staff extended each posting to two years.

VIM works through parish-based support groups, which the would-be volunteer must form. Church House staff helps by meeting with the support group to explain what their responsibilities are. “This way, the people in the parish get really involved,” Ms. Johnson said. National staff also provide training and orientation for prospective volunteers.

Because the program is so heavily based on parish resources and support, Ms. Johnson said, it is one General Synod program that could survive the financial collapse of the national church.


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