Kenya Red Cross depends on its volunteers to deliver community health, blood donation and disaster management services in the town of Kisumu. Tina Briggs is working on ways to keep these talented young people engaged and motivated.
Tina with volunteers at first aid training in the Kisumu branch
Perched on the broad shores of Lake Victoria in western Kenya, Kisumu's fortunes seem to ebb and flow with the tides. While the lake provides fishing, trade and tourism opportunities to sustain the town's economy, its seasonal flooding poses an ongoing threat to neighbouring communities.
During a flood, the Kisumu branch of Kenya Red Cross Society has its hands full with relief and mitigation activities. In drier times though, the branch is expected to create sources of income to sustain its activities.
It's a classic quandary: an organisation with a broad humanitarian mandate to assist the most vulnerable, a reputation that attracts hundreds of willing volunteers, and a lack of resources to make consistent use of them.
When Tina Briggs arrived at the Kisumu branch, she was surprised to see a large number of young people waiting around the office. "On any given day we have up to 30 volunteers aged 18-28 who drop into the branch," she says. "They may be unemployed or in between college semesters, but they're keenly interested in public health, community development and social work."
Brisbane resident Tina is currently working with Kenya Red Cross Society through the Australian Volunteers for International Development program, an Australian Government-AusAID initiative.
An abundance of willing volunteers poses two challenges for Kenya Red Cross: finding the resources to engage young people in its work; and finding ways to keep them motivated and active.
Solutions were already being rolled out when Tina arrived. Led by Branch Coordinator Caren Akech, the Kisumu branch had begun to involve its volunteers in delivering health promotion campaigns in partnership with government and not-for-profit agencies.
Schools are a particular focus for activity. Volunteer peer educators now conduct outreach activities to provide information on sexual health and HIV/AIDS. With over 1.5 million Kenyans living with the virus, peer education on HIV is welcomed by schools although careful negotiation is needed before discussing methods of protection outside of abstinence.
Several schools have also formed their own Red Cross clubs, which help young Kenyans to develop first aid and life skills. As Caren Akech explains: "These activities help in strengthening the humanitarian services of Red Cross, mainstreaming humanitarian values in the school curriculum and inculcating a culture of volunteerism in young people."
Tina now accompanies the Kisumu branch volunteers on school visits, where they have incorporated blood donation drives into their health talks.
Kenya experiences chronic shortages of safe blood supplies "Youth aged 16-18 are the primary target group for blood donation because they're less likely to be infected with HIV or other communicable diseases, which is a sad reality," Tina says.
While funding for health promotion projects can be sporadic, there's still a surfeit of talented young people at the ready. It's here that Tina's role really begins: engaging and retaining these volunteers.
The first step was training. Volunteers wanted to enhance their employment skills and Tina - whose career includes human resources, project management and marketing - was well placed to help them. She now delivers regular workshops on presentation skills, job interview skills and writing applications and funding proposals. She has also introduced some weekly energisers - a Red Cross quiz day on Mondays and Frisbee Fridays - to maintain their connection to Red Cross.
Caren Akech has seen a noticeable difference since Tina arrived. "Tina has been instrumental in bringing the youth together for peer activities, motivating them to stay focussed and injecting enthusiasm. She has been a wonderful asset and it is impossible to truly describe how much she has helped the volunteers and myself."
One of Tina's initial successes was the production of a monthly newsletter to inform community stakeholders about recent activities and market the branch's services to partner organisations. "The newsletter belongs to the volunteers now and it's their role to drive content, stories and the overall look of the document," Tina says.
The next step was to encourage volunteers to take the lead in organising their own activities. "I had a dozen people put their names down for the role of Volunteer Activity Coordinator, so I rostered them on a weekly basis and gave them the resources to do it. It's nice to see people taking responsibility for team leadership, organisation and communication."
These young people are invaluable assets for Kenya Red Cross: if they can take the lead in identifying new projects and raising funds, the organisation will be able to deliver on its humanitarian mandate in the town of Kisumu.
Tina is quietly confident. "I've had so much cooperation from the people at this branch, it's fantastic. It is great to work with and learn from such talented, enthusiastic and committed people, which inspires me to come into work each day."
Photo Credit: Stephen Warui/Australian Red Cross