Here at Evidence Action, we know that volunteerism has the potential to drive positive socio-economic change for communities, particularly if volunteers are at the fore of delivering evidence-based programs. As part of our commitment to cost-effectiveness, we leverage networks of local volunteers to promote safe water practices in rural Africa and to deliver remedial sessions for children struggling with basic literacy and numeracy skills.

With Winning Start, in particular, our focus has been on recruiting a specific type of volunteer: young, well-educated, eager to serve and work with children, and interested in personal or professional development opportunities that can enhance their employability in contexts of high youth unemployment. Winning Start, an education program in our Beta incubator, is designed to improve child literacy and numeracy by using youth volunteers to deliver the rigorously tested and proven “teaching at the right level” (TaRL) pedagogy. We know from the robust evidence about TaRL that using a volunteer to deliver the pedagogy can have the greatest impact on children in terms of improving their reading and mathematics skills. As we’ve worked with the Government of Kenya’s G-United program to pioneer the Winning Start model, we’ve learned what it takes to attract the right kind of candidate to serve in the program, and our partnership with the Busara Center for Behavioural Economics has helped us identify key motivations that drive volunteers’ commitment and service, one of which is a desire to serve and give back.  This intrinsic bent towards service can sustain volunteers through many months of volunteering, which, in the Kenya-based program, involve living in and adapting to a new social and cultural context.

As the world celebrates International Volunteer Day, we celebrate Winning Start volunteers for their patience, perseverance, and passion. They spend up to a year working to unlock the promise of an upcoming generation. In October this year, the Government of Kenya’s G-United program graduated its fourth and largest cohort of volunteers so far: a total of 1,013 youth completed the program, which is 83 percent of the total number deployed. We followed up with five youth who successfully completed the program to learn more about their experiences and motivations. Read reflections from these inspiring young individuals below.

Marion Jeptoo

Marion Jeptoo graduated in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in commerce from Kenyatta University – one of Kenya’s leading tertiary institutions. She hails from Uasin Gishu County, located in the western part of Kenya, but – consistent with the Government of Kenya’s objective of promoting social cohesion across different cultural groups in the country – she was deployed to serve in the more centrally-situated Embu County. While deployed, she participated in several other service initiatives, including efforts to sensitize community members on the importance of education, plant trees, and fundraise to install a borehole within the school she was deployed to.

What motivated you to apply to G-United? For me, it was a chance to get involved in community service. Because I didn’t have a job at the time, I thought that instead of staying at home I could volunteer and pick up some skills as well.

What was it like working with children?  I enjoyed interacting with the children. I had never worked with children before. One of the challenges I faced, being in quite a remote area, was that the children at the school lacked exposure. In some cases, there were also special needs children that were part of the class because there was no dedicated program for them. It was challenging managing such children. But, working with children taught me patience: I had to try every possible way of helping them understand.

What was it like living in a new community? What were the biggest differences between your home and your host community?  One difference is that I was deployed to a home that had a mother and father, whereas I come from a home with just a mother – so that was a new experience for me. Also, sometimes people made some assumptions about me based on where I was from, but fortunately that did not really affect my interactions and my host family was very accommodating.

Living in a new place and community gave me a new perspective on life. I used to fear that if I were deployed for work to a new area, I wouldn’t be able to adapt. That used to hold me back. Living in a new place helped me face my fear and taught me to be flexible. I was deployed to a place where there was no electricity, no internet. Yet I managed to adapt: I learned some of their language and culture; I went to their ceremonies. The experience toughened me up a bit, and it taught me to accommodate diversity and the different opinions and values people hold without making them feel uncomfortable.

What are your plans going forward and what skills (if any) did you take away that will help you achieve those? I am looking for a job now, but I’m also engaged in other activities as I search. During my service, I learned a lot about drive and self-management, as well as work management. In the program, no-one would push you to do anything, you had to push yourself.

Zipporah Barongo

Zipporah Barongo graduated in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in development studies from Catholic University of Eastern Africa, in Kenya. Originally from Kisii County in South-Western Kenya, Zipporah was deployed to serve in Machakos County over 250 miles (a more than 7-hour car drive) away. Alongside her TaRL sessions, she started a tree nursery at her school and helped to dig-out a rubbish disposal site.

What motivated you to apply? I studied development studies and have participated in several internships that involve working with students, which I love doing. My friend shared the opportunity with me and when I saw it involved working with children, I applied.

What was it like working with children? The kids were very eager to learn but we found that some of them understood very little English or Kiswahili, which created a language barrier. By speaking to them in Kiswahili and encouraging the children around them who understood Swahili to also teach them, we saw improvement. I also tried to use songs to help them learn. The songs helped them remember what they were learning. They really liked the songs; they would remind us to sing particular songs with them if we went some time without singing them.

Sometimes, the children would come up to me and say (in Kiswahili) “I want to be like you when I grow up, what should I do”—so they were eager to learn. They would come up and want to show me what they have learned to read and you could see them improving.

What was it like living in a new community? What were the biggest differences between your home and host community? At first, it was shocking. There was culture shock. For example, the housing we stayed in was very humble. The house I slept in had two rooms and some holes in the walls that allowed cold air to come in at night—but we managed to fix these holes, working with my host family. The community would also fetch water from furrows, and the water didn’t always seem safe to drink. I would encourage them to use some chlorine to treat the water.

Overall, however, I adjusted quite quickly to the new environment because we had been told, during our training, that living in our host homes would be challenging sometimes. Fortunately, my host family was very welcoming and whenever I faced a challenge I could share it with them and they would help me sort it out if they could. Through the experience, I learned patience and humility.

What are your plans going forward and what skills (if any) did you take away that will help you achieve those? I would like to work on helping to achieve sustainable development goal three: improving access to safe water. However, I’m now also more interested in doing something related to children.

From the program, I learned better time-management skills. Being on time used to be a problem for me, but I learned to be more timely because the children would hold me accountable for showing up on time. I’ve also improved my public-speaking skills because I would attend self-help meetings within the community I was deployed to where I would share information with the groups to help them improve their lives. Now when I’m asked to speak in front of an audience, I can.

Kennedy Maina

Kennedy Maina was born and raised in Nakuru county in Kenya. While his mother is from Nakuru, his father is from Murang’a county. In 2016, Kennedy graduated from Maseno University in Kisumu County with a bachelor’s degree in industrial chemistry. For his volunteering period, Kennedy was deployed to a primary school in Migori County. While serving as a volunteer, Kennedy also helped plant 150 trees in his new community and worked with standard eight students (eighth graders) helping them prepare for their secondary-school entrance exams by helping them study maths over the weekend.

What motivated you to apply? One of my friends encouraged me to apply. He told me that it would be a good opportunity to get to know my country and get to know myself. I also have a passion for volunteering.

What was it like working with children?
I’ve never worked with children before, but they are fun to work with. I also learned patience: sometimes children couldn’t pronounce words and would take time to learn. I found that if you gave children some space and made them comfortable, they would become better. When we began, there was one child who would rarely speak when we were doing sessions but after a while she became one of the most vocal students.

Unfortunately, sometimes there were cases of children dropping out or not showing up for class for several weeks because they were working at home, perhaps grazing cows or helping their parents. Because my host ‘father’ was a church-goer, I would use that platform to encourage parents to value education and send their children to school.

What was it like living in a new community? What were the biggest differences between your home and your host community? There was a lot of early marriage, and they were surprised that I wasn’t married at my age. Girls would also go through female genital mutilation and I volunteered with an organization in the area that was trying to advocate for that to change. We would talk to girls and let them know that being uncircumcised was not a negative thing (it wouldn’t mean, for example, that they would never get married).

One challenging thing was that being farmers, my host family would wake up at 4am to cultivate the fields. Sometimes they would wake me up and that would be difficult because I also needed to be at school at 7.30 am and work the rest of the day. I had to explain that because I was also working in the school, I could only help where possible, such as collecting water for the cows after school hours. Sometimes, it was hard for them to understand why I was tired when I got home, since they had worked in the fields doing manual work. But I learned to show respect for my host family and accomodate them because they were accommodating me. I also learned perseverance.

What are your plans going forward and what skills (if any) did you take away that will help you achieve those? For now, I’m doing a six-month course with the African Leadership Academy learning about data & decision-making, leadership and entrepreneurship, communication for impact, and project management. During my service period, I learned how to manage kids, how to plan my work, and how to manage myself and my finances. I also learned how to communicate effectively.

Fanice Mageto

Fanice Mageto graduated with a bachelor’s degree in industrial chemistry from Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. She is from Kisii County but was deployed to Migori County for her service. While volunteering, she became interested in working within her new community, which consisted largely of small-scale crop farmers, to advance the use of biogas, since many families had domestic animals and poultry. She set up a biogas digester in her host family’s home. She also worked within the new community raising awareness among youth and parents on the importance and value of education.

What motivated you to apply? When I was in primary school, I personally struggled to learn so I wanted to help children who are like me so that they can have a positive future.

What was it like working with children? I enjoyed the feedback I would get from the students: they were so happy when they managed to read and I enjoyed seeing them smile. The challenging thing was that it took some time for children to grasp what you were trying to teach them.

What was it like living in a new community? What were the biggest differences between your home and your host community? At first, going to a new place was scary. I wasn’t sure what awaited me. Fortunately, my host family was very welcoming. One of the big differences I experienced was in terms of greetings: you needed to greet every older person you met, whether you knew them or not, and there were different greetings for different groups of people (e.g. older men, older women).

What are your plans going forward and what skills (if any) did you take away that will help you achieve those? Right now I want to venture into business. My experience in G-United taught me to be responsible, to plan for my future, to be patient, and to be independent.

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