Youth Volunteers rise to the challenge of COVID-19

“Thanks to UNICEF’s workshops, I met a lot of peers who, just like me, want to contribute to the world in this difficult time.” Ines, aged 15

Angela Hawke
Young volunteers zoom meeting screenshot
UNICEF, Screenshot April 2020
26 May 2020

When a crisis hits, it is easier to respond if you already have useful tools in place, and if you are prepared to innovate, reshape and move fast. One prime example is UNICEF’s ‘Volunteering in the time of COVID-19’ initiative in North Macedonia. This builds on a Youth Volunteer Programme that was underway before COVID-19 forced the country into lockdown, and that has adapted at speed to meet the challenge of the ‘new normal.’ Now these young volunteers are taking a lead in shaping initiatives in their own communities to support the worldwide response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The wheels were already in motion. UNICEF had been working to create a network of youth volunteers, using an innovative approach where young people drive the whole process, from identifying local problems to coming up with – and delivering – practical solutions. The task has been to adapt this approach in the face of COVID-19.  

 

“There was no need to ‘reinvent the wheel’ – it was already there,” says Patrizia Di Giovanni, UNICEF Representative. “But these young volunteers are making that wheel move much faster.” 

 

In early 2020, UNICEF sent out an open call via social media for young people who would like to join its team as volunteers. Around 160 young people expressed an interest in taking on different roles as digital activists, campaign leaders, community engagement workers, youth reporters and more. A second call found that 22 young people were eager to take part in Design Thinking Workshops where they could share their experiences and concerns, identify the most pressing challenges and develop their own solutions.  

Everything was lined up for a design thinking bootcamp. Then COVID-19 happened. The country went into lockdown. And suddenly, it became impossible for people to meet in person, just as the need for the training became more urgent than ever.  

UNICEF worked quickly to move the entire programme online, via online video conferencing. And in April, the in-person training became a two-week series of digital workshops.  

 

Identifying the challenges 

Using human-centred design methods the work began with a session on ‘Sensing,’ which showed participants how to gather the views of their friends, relatives and communities about how people are feeling during the pandemic. Using their own social media channels, participants then interviewed 100-150 people, and found that the same themes emerged time after time:  

  • “I want to feel free again, now I feel captured, closed, confused and helpless.” 
  • “I miss my old routines, my old way of living.” 
  • “I need more support with my mental health.” 
  • “I miss my friends - isolation has been an eye opener about the importance of human interaction.” 
  • “I’d like to use this period to learn something new and develop new skills, but I’m feeling less motivated to do things.” 
  • “School is harder and more stressful than before; I wish my teachers were empathetic to our other needs at this time.” 
  • “People are following the rules even if they’re skeptical of the information that’s shared.” 

     

A vision of success 

The young volunteers were then asked to define their own vision of what success would look like, if they could respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in the short-term, and other challenges in the longer-term. They came up with six themes:  

  • connection and solidarity 
  • helping each other 
  • a well-informed public 
  • positivity, happiness, agency and resilience 
  • protecting the earth and humanity 
  • volunteers making a real contribution 

That spurred a series of questions on how this vision could be turned into a reality, from “How could we help people take care of their mental health and emotional wellbeing at this time?” to “How could we overcome skepticism and misinformation to promote life-saving information about COVID-19?”   

 

From ideas to action 

Then it was time to come up with solutions, in a workshop designed to spur real creativity. The young people were encouraged to think big, just go for it, listen to other people’s ideas and be open to going wherever the conversation leads. They made good use of video conferencing break-out rooms, document sharing and other functions to drive the whole process along.  

And together, these young people generated more than 100 ideas to help their communities during the COVID-19 crisis.  

Participants voted on the ideas that could have the greatest impact in their communities without putting anyone at risk. They then narrowed this wealth of ideas down to three that should be further developed, and that could continue to have traction long after the COVID-19 pandemic:  

  • #PlantAtHome: a gardening challenge + zero waste initiative to get people planting and growing seeds, using whatever materials and space they have at home. The aim is to build new skills and safeguard mental health, with young people challenging and supporting each other to start a home-garden, with a focus on the longer-term environmental benefits of recycling. 
  • Psychologists online: with volunteers promoting positive messages about the need to care for your mental health and seek help if you need it. 
  • Movie club: with volunteers inviting others to address feelings of isolation by connecting to watch a movie online together, even while in isolation and maintaining physical distancing. 

 

“It makes me stronger to know that even during these difficult times I will be helping people stay alert, stay positive, stay inside. When we are together at the workshops not only do I get to meet new people, but I am able to see how everyone has different ideas for solutions to the same problem.” 

Erjona, aged 15. 

 

Wasting no time at all, the young volunteers launched #PlantAtHome on 5 May, with plans underway for seed banks, seedling swaps and more. An Instagram profile they created for the scheme attracted 500 followers in just a week days and 50 other volunteers have joined the initiative as activators. While UNICEF plans to provide ‘starter kits’ for these new gardeners, the entire initiative is being driven by young people, from the initial idea to its launch and roll-out.    

 

“This is a really exciting part of our engagement with young people,” adds Patrizia Di Giovanni. “Not only does it support their right to participate in the issues that concern them, but it also gives them a chance to channel their own energy and creativity into something really positive, at a time in their lives when their need to connect with others is so strong. And it is unleashing their massive potential to contribute: not only to their own wellbeing, but to the wellbeing of their entire society.” 

 

For more information, see UNICEF in North Macedonia Volunteer Initiative