This week was Refugee Week. So this week that I wanted to share something with you that I’ve learnt in recent years, which has moved me and reminded me of the potential for technology to help others.
In 2010 a friend came to me with an idea to start a non-profit. The idea – provide health education sessions to refugee and asylum seeker communities. The plan – ask doctors and health professionals to volunteer their time to go into communities around Victoria and talk to people about health.
It seemed like an unlikely concept. Why would an already busy segment of the community volunteer their time? And how would we even build connections with the community, when we didn’t have any linkages with them already?
Beyond all the barriers, at the simplest level it was about a people having a conversation, so that everyone could walk away more informed. I agreed to help out with the Digital part of the project knowing little about where it would lead.
In large organisations we think about the role of online technologies to improve the way thousands (sometimes hundred of thousands or millions) of people interact with a company’s products and services.
But at the other extreme, online technologies have as significant a role to play with small groups. This is the democratising power of technology.
With reasonably equitable access to digital tools, anyone can build their own channel on youtube, create a social media following….and just as important, start a non-profit that helps people less fortunate. While there are countless meetups for new startups and VC funded ideas, digital tools have opened up new possibilities for non-profits too.
This is exactly the experience I had with the idea my friend came to me about those years ago, which grew into The Water Well Project.
We faced two challenges. First, we had to coordinate a group of healthcare professional volunteers. Second, we had to find a way to engage these volunteers with potential health education sessions that they could host in different communities.
In the past, coordinating these activities would have been difficult to manage. We would have had to rely on email at best, and phone calls at worst. Instead, we used a simple WordPress website that allows potential volunteers to register their interest in volunteering. We run inductions for eligible volunteers twice a year.
By building networks within the refugee health sector, we now receive multiple referrals from many refugee and asylum seeker support organisations. We now have over 300 volunteers. Health education sessions in communities are displayed on our website. And any volunteer can book into run these sessions with a partner, up to a month in advance.
It has not always been a perfect system. Like any non-profit organisation, there are always challenges. Most of our committee hold down day jobs which makes coordinating activities difficult. And invariably our volunteers also lead busy lives and sometimes have to change plans. This said, we’ve been able to help people contribute their skills to the community in ways that didn’t exist before.
Our volunteers have expressed countless times how much of a meaningful difference it has made to their perceptions and self-training to speak with communities. And the communities we’ve reached have let us know that meeting healthcare professionals has helped them understand a healthcare system that was largely unknown to them.
I would love to say it’s always been a complete joy to work with the Project. That wouldn’t be the truth though. Nor should it be. Very few things that are worthwhile come easy. That’s part of the fun of it. Like with many non-profits, I’ve been fortunate to work with many people who are extremely committed and passionate about what they do. For example, one of our volunteers flies to Victoria from Perth just so she can run health sessions, because there simply isn’t a similar organisation in Perth. That story, and many others, are an inspiration to me.
In the last four years The Water Well Project has run over 230 interactive health sessions across more than 10 local council areas in Victoria. The Project was also a finalist in the Melbourne Awards in 2014 and was acknowledged in the State Government’s Victorian Refugee and Asylum Seeker Action Plan 2014-2018.
As I said, I’m a believer in the role of technology in bringing people to work on ideas in unexpected ways. Looking back at the idea of The Water Well Project four years ago, I wouldn’t have imagined it would be where it is today. Sometimes, the things we choose to invest our time in (even if only a few hours a week), can surprise us.
So for Refugee Week ending this week I say a big thank you to the hundreds of volunteers who have helped with The Water Well Project. Thank you for reminding me we are never too busy to help out and that a small website can help us do big things in our communities.