LoyarBurok Interview - Mentari volunteers

For some reason after graduating I've made friends with a lot of people in the legal fraternity. A nice change from the typical engineer/doctor most of us scholars are acquainted to. One of these friends now edits for the website LoyarBurok. She was planning to do an editorial or something on the Mentari project. So we discussed a few interview questions that readers might find interesting. She compiled them and sent out the questions to us, the volunteers. Here's my response. I bit lengthy but this is a subject I feel strongly for. Make sure you check out the loyarburok website later to see if the full interview has been posted. Till then, happy reading. hope you've made yourself a nice cuppa while reading this! hehehe...


The LoyarBurok Interview with Project Mentari Volunteers/Facilitators

1. When and what was your first involvement in charity or stint as a volunteer?

Like most Malaysians, as a young boy charity meant giving people money. I have participated in a few visits to spastic homes, orphanages and the random gotong royong. Those were one off things where you do and forget. Project is the first long term charity I have participated in and I consider my real first volunteering stint.


2. Share with us how did the idea of starting up and running a volunteer project together came about?


Mentari was really the brainchild of Nik Nazmi. We went to the same A-Levels college. He wanted to do something for the children of Desa Mentari. At that time he was not a yet a state representative and I didn't even know where Desa Mentari was and if it at all even existed. I believed in the cause and trusted my friends. The events preceding our first meeting at restoran Pelita Jalan Ampang are still abit fuzzy to me but I do remember that he first bounced the idea to a group of us – all very young graduates at that time and most of us were very receptive of the idea. We met a few times after and later we were introduced to Pn Mawarni and family and the rest is history.

3. What were the barriers in starting a charity/volunteer program such as Project Mentari?


The main hurdle was to get people to volunteer and three years down the road, it still is. I think this is a common problem in Malaysia and other developing countries. The spirit of volunteerism is not yet commonplace in society. That said, I know a lot of people from the generation Y group that are keen on volunteering but do not have an outlet to do so. I personally think that to appeal to the masses, volunteering must be seen as cool and most importantly, fun. I think this is one of the things we are trying to achieve here at Mentari Project. To create an atmosphere that is fun for both children and volunteers so that learning is fun and to also inculcate the spirit of volunteerism to the children so that maybe one day, they will come back to Mentari to volunteer and help make this project more sustainable a self reliant. On the volunteer side we relied on mainly personal friends and contacts at first but we quickly got support from some corporations in terms of volunteers and also random persons who contacted us from our Facebook page and also via our individual volunteer personal facebook pages.


Other hurdles were financial, venue and also local support. This is where social activists and politicians come in. Initially we didn't have much funding and sometimes we had to buy the teaching supplies ourselves. Alhamdulillah as time went by and with lots of hard work we managed to attract generous donors to our cause. For this to happen we leveraged on the network of Nik Nazmi and we also officially registered the Mentari Project as a full ledged charity with the registrar of companies. The venue was arranged for us by Nik Nazmi. His good relationship with the local community helped us a lot.


4. Anyone that helped paved the way or offered support?


There is no doubt that this must go out to the volunteers. The very first volunteers worked very hard to help build a strong foundation for this project and also help shape the first modules for our classes. Without the volunteers we wouldn't be speaking here today about this topic. We also received a lot of support from the general public in terms of book donations, stationary and also cash donations. There are too many to mention individually but we are in deep gratitude to those who help made the Mentari Project what it is today.  


5. Why Mentari flats?


Well, Mentari fit the description of the target demographics for this project – The urban poor. These are the families with a very low household income having to live with the "big city" living costs. It is also the community the Nik Nazmi had the best links with. Without the all important relationship with the local community this project would have never seen the light of day(i.e Mentari, *laughs*).


6. Who are the other volunteers?


The early volunteers were mainly friends and acquaintances of Nik Nazmi. We were typically young professionals, university graduates. Later on, some ex-teachers and University students joined us. Until today, the core of the Mentari project is still the young professionals and graduates and we see this as a very good indication of the attitude the younger generation has towards volunteerism.


7. Since it is a tuition programme, is it a problem that some volunteers pop in only occasionally? How do you encourage once-in-a-while volunteers? I'm sure other volunteer program facilitators would like to hear!


This is not a major problem considering we have a team of core volunteers that come regularly. We always welcome new volunteers and encourage them to come regularly. After all, this is a voluntary tuition so we cannot expect people to come everytime. We do not have anything specific we do to encourage once in a while volunteers but I personally post a message on my facebook profile to say that I'm going and who ever reads it and feels like they want to come, can come. Some people are once in a while volunteers just because they forgot about the times of the classes and require only reminders. Volunteering is not for everyone but it should be made clear to everyone that every little bit of help counts and their efforts however little in their eyes means a lot to the children.

8. Why is this rewarding to you? If it is rewarding, why do you think aren't more people volunteering or getting involved in some form of giving-back to society?


To me putting a smile on someone's is reward enough. Giving less fortunate children a better chance in life and seeing the change in them makes my weekend, every time. Most of these children do not have the exposure to certain things in life we take for granted. I am aware that not every child at Mentari are academically inclined and to say that we can make everyone get all A's in their exams is a being untruthful to oneself. This is where Mentari differs from other "tuition centres". We seek to try to provide them with the life skills, the values that will help them make it in life regardless of their eventual academic qualifications. This is what gives me the greatest satisfaction.


As to why everyone isn't going on a stampede to our centres to volunteer is not rocket science. As with everything else, there is no one thing that appeals to everyone. Football is fun but why isn't everyone playing football? That fact aside, my belief is that 1) Volunteer programs are seldom very fun or the volunteers. It's analogous to an employee saying that he has "served" the company as opposed to contributed for the company. The former clearly sees his tenure at the company as a service, him being the servant. Volunteer programs must be fun and beneficial to the volunteers too, may it be enabling the person to expand is social network, erm… maybe by providing the opportunity for discourse of like minded people on common mutual issues etc…


2) I believe the exposure the average Malaysian gets towards volunteer programs is very limited. Volunteer programs must work harder at reaching out to people. I strongly believe that there are any people out there that are rearing to help but do not have a channel to do so.      


3) To a lesser extent I believe that the amount of social mileage one gets by volunteering is not that great. I think this is more apparent in the male section of society. Volunteering doesn't get you more brownie points with the other boys and it is perceived that it is not "macho" to spend your weekends with children. That is just one example I can think of. I'm sure there are many more social related factors becoming barriers to volunteerism.

9. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I tend to see that volunteers at Mentari lack racial diversity. Are you at all concerned about this?

You can bring a camel to the water hole but you cannot force it to drink. We are open to all and we have never turned away anybody. We do have a good mix of Chinese and Malay volunteers though we have yet to have Indian volunteers. I don't know why.


10. How has the reception been so far? From the:
     - kids

The kids thoroughly enjoy the classes we hold.  And now with our dedicated centre they can also come on week days after school to do their homework and project assignments. Most of these children have very cramped living conditions in the flats and do not have a conducive place to do their academic work. Plus our library is getting bigger every week! The children have more opportunity to sit down and read.
     - parents

We hold occasional "parent-teacher" days. This is when we get to gauge what the parents see have improved with their children at home, something we cannot gauge ourselves. Generally speaking the parents are very pleased with the improvements they see. The most common comment we get is that they see that their children are more confident and not as shy as before. Some see the grades improve at school. Overall, the parents are very pleased.
     - your peers?

When the parents are happy and the children happy too, it makes us volunteers happy =)

11. Nik Nazmi is listed as an administrator in your Facebook page. What is his role in the organisation and what do you think is the role of politicians in volunteerism?

Politicians are a very important part of any social activism. There is only so much you can do before you need to deal with politicians. In this respect, why not have one onboard?! It makes life so much easier for us. Politicians are the ones that engage the community, bridge the gap between stake holders and the authorities, connects us with the new opportunities, introduces us to potential fund sources and much more. Politicians can play a very big role and I would like to see more politicians do similar projects as there is no better investment than investing in our future generation. 

12. What would you do differently, should you have the opportunity to set up another volunteer or charitable organisation on your own?


I wouldn't do it any different. I'd probably document things more diligently so that other people can replicate what we do here in other places. But I think what we have done is very commendable and has proven effective – we are in our third year running.


13. How has Project Mentari has affected the community there? And what

sort of change do you plan to affect further?


I am not resident in this part of town so I wouldn't really know for sure how our project has affected the community here. What I can say is that parents now have a place where they can be sure that their children are NOT doing anything counter productive and are better occupied than playing football along the flat corridors. I'm not sure we've planned for any changes of sorts. I guess for me it's just keep on doing what we do and hope that we can influence a generation of children that can contribute to society and to prevent these children from turning to vice if life does not go their way.

14. Anything exciting for the year ahead planned for Project Mentari?


We plan to organise a few educational trips to different places that can offer the children different perspective to life. Maybe visit somewhere that gives insight to the arts scene, maybe traditional crafts, or visit a factory to see how things are made. We plan to organise a language camp among other special activities. Many plans but nothing concrete yet. We usually come up with things as we go along. With the volunteers with their own careers planning an event of this sort is abit tricky but we've been successful in the past.