December 8, 2011

Helping schools around the world, from your living room

Students at a school in Zimbabwe

A new initiative by the Canadian International Learning Foundation has set out to overcome what Canadians say is the single biggest barrier to becoming a volunteer: lack of time.
“Change the world in five hours a week” is the mantra of the Educator Volunteer Network, which matches up skilled Canadians with schools in developing and at-risk regions around the world, letting them donate their time without ever leaving their desks.
EducatorVolunteer.Net is the brainchild of Ryan Aldred, president of the CanILF, a registered charity devoted to improving educational opportunities for children in destitute and war-torn regions. Through the agency’s work in Afghanistan, Aldred said, he saw that online volunteers could make a massive difference to schools.
“Two things we were struck by was how interested Canadians were in getting involved and how many schools were out there looking for assistance. We kept thinking, ‘What can we do to help these schools?’
“So we came up with the notion of an online community where we could connect the two groups and help them work together. The network launched in September and the response has been amazing.”
So far more than 50 volunteers have signed up to provide one-on-one online assistance with new technologies, research requests, curriculum enhancement, development of resources, writing content for websites and putting together budgets and business plans.
“Going overseas to volunteer isn’t always possible,” said Melanie Wilson, a volunteer working on her PhD in Montreal, in a press release. “Now I’m in touch directly with a school in Uganda… It has been a fun, interesting and empowering experience that has nicely fit into my already busy schedule.”
In addition to two schools in Uganda, there are six other partner schools in Afghanistan, Tanzania, Nepal and Liberia.
The beauty of helping online, Aldred points out, is that because the network offers mainly expertise, there’s little risk that resources might be misused. Volunteers know the exact value of their contributions, and the schools provide oversight and feedback to determine their needs and evaluate the assistance they’re getting.
While charitable organizations are increasingly using the Internet and social media to solicit donations, Aldred said, the network is the first to harness it in this specific way, and he sees huge opportunity.
“You’ve got the potential to solve a problem once and then solve it forever — an organization can come along and see what you’ve done,” he said. “You could potentially have millions of people volunteering online with almost no cost attached. It could transform not only education but health care, social services, and agriculture.”
Right now, Aldred said, the network is seeking volunteers with business knowledge, “to help with developing business plans and help [schools] build up the credibility they need to work with international organizations.”
To volunteer or to donate, visit educatorvolunteer.net.

gburnett@vancouversun.com

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