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Respect us
Protect us
Support us
The goal: universal health coverage
The means: volunteers?
Globally, there is a shortfall of 2.3 million professional health workers. Developing countries in particular face an acute shortage. There are also one billion people without access to essential health services.

Expanding volunteerism is just one part of the solution to help improve global health provision and ensure equitable access to health.

Volunteers are improving access to health in even the most difficult contexts. However, Effective volunteerism does not happen by itself. It needs recognition, planning and support not only to grow, but to sustain within the communities we serve.
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Prisoners in Ireland

How a community-based health approach is changing life in prison communities in Ireland



Volunteering has not only improved the health benefits of prisoners, it has also developed inmates volunteers’ confidence and recognition within the prison community. The CBHFA approach is helping to transform lives, reduce violence and improve access to health in 10 out of 14 prisons in Ireland. These photos and words tell the story of the inmates volunteers in Ireland and the lives that have been changed.

Click each image for more information.

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Eddie: A sense of purpose

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John: the principles of change

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Ryan: a new life


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A journey of change behind bars: promoting health and empowerment in Irish Prisons

In ten of 14 prisons in Ireland, a small cadre of special-status Irish Red Cross volunteers combines and innovative community-based health approach together with the Red Cross Red Crescent Fundamental Principles to change the lives of troubled men, transform prison culture, reduce violence and improve the physical and psychological health of inmates.

Since the Community Based Health and First Aid (CBHFA) programme was put in place, the percentage of fights involving an illicit, handmade blade has gone down from 97 per cent to 10 per cent in one year. The result has been fewer injuries and reduced prison health-care costs.
But the real beauty of the programme is that the volunteers don’t come from outside the prison, they are the inmates themselves.

Sporting black T-shirts with the seven Fundamental Principles listed on the back, the prisoners run a host of projects — from hygiene promotion to HIV counselling to violence prevention — which prison health officials tried but could never achieve.

In one of the prisons the uptake of the HIV testing was raised from less than 10 per cent to over 72 per cent. There is less tension in the jail  and issues like HIV stigma and discrimination are openly discussed.

“It’s especially satisfying to help other inmates overcome the kind of addictions I once faced. I feel like I am giving the other lads some hope,” says Ryan, Irish Red Cross volunteer in Wheatfield Prison “I was dependent on drugs and alcohol when I came in, I know how it feels. This was the help I really needed.

The programme started in 2009, when Graham Betts-Symonds, CBHFA programme manager, Irish Prison Service began looking for a way to improve access to health care within Wheatfield Prison in a comprehensive way. “The prison health care was very reactive,” he says, adding that hygiene was poor and prisoners were apathetic about their health. “Prisoners went into the infirmary when they were sick. Nobody was looking at how to live a better and healthier life.”

“The Irish Red Cross came up with the idea that we would have Irish Red Cross volunteers within the prisons – that has never happened before” says Lydia O’Holloran, CBHFA manager at the Irish Red Cross. The Red Cross decided to apply the CBHFA approach, originally designed to help local communities in developing countries create systems for managing and improving their own health.

“The local community in a prison is the prisoners themselves,” he says. “So what we needed was something that created action and empowerment within that community.” In the prison setting, that meant creating community health committees, made up of prison health staff, teaching staff and volunteers.

But being a volunteer in the prison means much more than just health to them. “I see this programme as empowering people, giving people the skills to believe in themselves, in doing ordinary everyday activities that actually make them feel and look good’ says Michael Donnellan, Director of the Irish Prison Service. “You don’t call them prisoners anymore, you call them volunteers. They are on the journey to reform and to change” he explains.

“Sometimes I feel like I’ve never achieved or done anything in my life” says Eddie, another inmate volunteer, “but I’ve never said that since I joined the Red Cross. I have so much potential in life and that’s the thing I like to say most, my outlook in life and where I can go from here”.
The programme is active in 10 prisons in Ireland, and is due to be extended to all 14 prisons. It has recruited 326 inmates as Irish Red Cross special-status volunteers who have helped to improve the lives of more than 3,279 of their fellow prisoners and the prison staff.

CBHFA approach and volunteering has provided a unique opportunity to develop and implement innovative healthcare projects and make universal health coverage

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Timor Leste

Local trained volunteers can bridge the gap in providing critical health knowledge to their communities and ensure equitable access to health services for all



To tackle the dire health situation in the country, Timor-Leste Red Cross Society has adopted a community-based health and first aid (CBHFA) approach, an integrated approach to promote health, hygiene, and ultimately empower communities and volunteers to prevent the spread of disease. These photos and words tell the story of the volunteers in Timor-Leste.

Click each image for more information.

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Volunteers a critical link

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Aware of the local context

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Learning and teaching


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Volunteers in Timor-Leste: providing the means to do good

It is a simple concept, and it is effective: take members of a community, train them on basic health and first aid so they, in turn, can support their neighbours. Also known within the Red Cross Red Crescent as the “community-based health and first aid” (CBHFA) approach, it has been especially effective in places such as Bitirai, a rural community in the south of East-Timor.

More than 70 per cent of Timor-Leste’s population lives in rural communities, often in extremely isolated conditions with very little access to formal health care. People need to walk a day or more to get to a health clinic, meaning that those too ill to make the trip must stay and take their chances.

According to UNDPs Human Development Report 2011, Timor-Leste has made substantial progress in many health areas such as infant and under-five mortality rates, antenatal care coverage, and treatment of tuberculosis (TB). However, the country remains off-track in curbing the prevalence of underweight children under-five years of age, maternal mortality rate, incidence of malaria, and the proportion of the population using improved sanitation facilities.

“We are giving people the means to do good within their own community,” explains Marcelino Albuquerqua, CBHFA project manager for the Red Cross of Timor-Leste, also known as Red Cross of Timor-Leste (CVTL). He goes on to explain that through CBHFA communities have been empowered with information and knowledge on health issues. He goes on to add

By using simple tools adapted to local contexts volunteers assist communities to identify their key health priorities. The community identified malaria, diarrhoea and malnutrition as the key health challenges. To gain a better understanding of the health practices in the community, a baseline survey of the top five health priorities was conducted, and volunteers were trained accordingly.

People in Bitirai respect the Red Cross. The brightly coloured orange shirts with the CVTL logo on the front are worn with pride.  And the community-based health approach is effective not only because of it improves the health and well-being of people in the community; it also works because it builds a strong sense of community.

There are over 500 community members who live in Bitirai. Located in a remote area of Timor-Leste with no electricity, running water, mobile reception or even a vehicle, the community relies heavily on one other. They trust each another. And they know exactly who lives in which house, the name and ages of their children.
As a result, when one member of the community is able to share important information on nutrition, handwashing, use of toilets or the best use for mosquito nets, people listen, and things change.

“I know that we can help the community to help themselves,” explains Josefa Pereira, a Red Cross volunteer. “Volunteering for the Red Cross is not a burden. So I don’t feel it takes my time,” she states.

But volunteers such as Josefa offer more than information. They also serve as a critical link to the health care system in Timor-Leste.

“As Red Cross volunteers, we are happy to help the community. When people get sick they come to us for help because they trust us. We take them to the hospital or health clinic,” explains Josefa. “We don’t ask for money or payment. It is our want.”

CBHFA activities, which include water and sanitation, Disaster Risk Reduction and a livelihood component,  have been implemented in 12 of Timor-Leste’s 13 districts. 35 CBHFA facilitators have been trained and an estimated 50,000 people have been reached through this programme.

Volunteerism is at the heart of achieving Universal Health Coverage.

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Volunteers in emergencies

When an emergency strikes, volunteers perform first aid, rescue people from collapsed buildings, drive ambulances, brave flood waters, conduct vaccination campaigns and provide comfort to those in need

Video: Syria

Pictures: Philippines

The Philippine Red Cross has developed a strong culture of volunteerism within the country with the intention of establishing first response teams in every community. From city to town to village, Red Cross volunteers are active not just when things go wrong, but in first aid training, disaster preparedness and hygiene promotion. When a disaster like Typhoon Haiyan strikes, it is these teams in the front line of the Red Cross response.

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First responders, first beneficiaries

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A link with the community

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Helping themselves to help others

Words: Syria

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Campaign to protect thousands of children from polio in Syria

By Viviane Tou'meh, SARC

A paper sent from the school to Naya’s mother says: “Just to be informed that next week we will vaccinate your child for Polio.”

Telephone calls started among children’s mothers in order to acknowledge the matter. “I worry about polio. Every day I ask my daughter if she got the vaccination. If they will be late, I have to take her to the doctor soon, I will not wait for a long time,” says Naya’s mother.

This worry – shared among many parents in Syria – is understandable in light of the current situation.

The conflict in Syria has allowed polio to return. The World Health Organization (WHO) announced that polio has returned to Syria for the first time since 1995, infecting at least 10 young children, while it has previously announced that more than 100,000 children under the age 5 years are susceptible to polio in Deir Ezzor.

“Polio is striking in the midst of an already difficult situation,” a UN report says. “More than one-third of all hospitals have closed, and more than two-thirds of health workers have fled the country.” Access to medical supplies and medical services is becoming increasingly difficult for people throughout the country because of problems delivering certain supplies and running health care centers in certain areas.

Emergency procedures to immunize high-risk areas as quickly as possible and to protect the Syrian children have been taken by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) in cooperation with WHO, the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) and the Ministry of Health.

Polio knows no boundaries, and the fear is that without immediate action, the outbreak of polio could turn into an epidemic. SARC has taken the lead to reach high-risk children across the frontlines with life-saving vaccinations. The challenge is to reach all children across the country.

Local Red Crescent volunteers – in Syria and neighboring countries – have been critical to the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement’s efforts to provide life-saving care and basic services communities within Syria and to people fleeing the conflict in neighbouring countries. Because they speak the language and are well connected in the community, local volunteers are able to reach those who may not be accessible to international organizations.

The only way to stop polio is to ensure that every child – including those in ‘hot areas’ – is vaccinated. SARC has a number of medical teams who can move among the local communities and vaccinate children. “The vaccine which is used in Syria is just a few drops to protect a child for a life,” says Dr. Hazem Bakleh, SARC Medical Services Director and the Director of Al Akram Center.
SARC was already running vaccination campaigns for measles, mumps and rubella, before the polio outbreak, and is now stepping up its work through its 14 branches and many sub-branches.

Dr. Hazem says: “In cooperation with relevant authorities, SARC will organize and sometimes carry out vaccinations in so called hot areas where there is no other health provider. Logistically, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) will provide us with 100 cool boxes to be used for this campaign.”

Mr. Omran al-Hamed, the SARC’s dispensary Manager in Deir Ezzor says: “We started to form our medical teams of our volunteers in order to be ready and start immediately when we know the areas that we need to visit.”

SARC’s Homs branch has delivered vaccinations to al-Rastan and Talbiseh cities and al-Qaryateen. The Directorate of Health in al-Rastan will take the lead with the vaccination process and SARC’s sub-branch in Talbiseh will vaccinate the children of this area.

Dr. Hazem says: “We have delivered vaccines to Bloudan in Rural Damascus in the beginning of November; meanwhile, our Mobile Health Unit provided medical care consultations to displaced people in this area.”

SARC’S Al-Raqqah and Rural Damascus branches kicked off the campaign, while coordination has been done with the Directorates of Health in Rural Damascus, Damascus and Daraa.

HIV and volunteers

The epidemic continues to have a profound effect on key populations at higher risk of HIV, such as prisoners, drug users, men who have sex with men and sex workers.

Video: Ireland


Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers work with key affected populations to ensure that life saving education, support and treatment gets precisely where it needs to be. The aim is to reduce the spread of the HIV virus until there are no new infections..

Click each image for more information.

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Working in the right places at the right time

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Promoting acceptance and tolerance

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Learning and teaching

Words: Guatemala

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Volunteers lead in the promotion of HIV testing and treatment in Latin America

While the number of new infections each year in Latin America has stabilised, there are 1.5 million people still living with HIV across the region. The epidemic affects disproportionately key populations at higher risk of infection, such as  female, male and transgender sex workers and men who have sex with men (MSM).

Antiretroviral therapy drastically reduces the impact of the virus, prevents mother-to-child transmission and can reduce the risk of transmitting HIV between sexual partners by up to 96 per cent.

However, high levels of stigma and discrimination, as well as profound social and economic inequality, make it difficult to reach the most at-risk and marginalised populations with prevention services and  life-saving treatment.

National Red Cross Societies have been scaling up activities to increase access to testing and treatment in Latin America, as part of the Global Alliance on HIV. In 2012 alone, volunteers reached around 1.5 million people with prevention messages, and advocated for the rights of at-risk populations including sex workers, men who have sex with men, injecting drug users and transgender people.

Red Cross programmes in Latin America and in the Caribbean actively supported around 14,000 people living with HIV, tested 1,500 HIV patients for TB and gave adherence support to over 6,500 people undergoing antiretroviral therapy in 2012 alone.

The Guatemalan Red Cross, for example, has been working together with the Ministry of Health in order to increase access to health, prevent further infections and save lives. Since 2009, volunteers have been trained to provide testing and counselling, and have expanded access to the hardest-to-reach and marginalised communities throughout the country.

These volunteers have reached well over 100,000 people with prevention messages, and now have access to over 6,000 testing kits as part of their ‘Get Tested’ campaign to encourage people to find out their HIV status. They are also maintaining close relationships with marginalised groups, reaching around 5,000 people at the highest risk of contracting HIV, like sex workers and men who have sex with men.

HIV volunteers can be recruited in many different areas of society: for example, the Guatemalan Red Cross has been training taxi drivers in HIV prevention and anti-stigma and discrimination messages to pass on to their passengers, helping to reach every corner of the country.

The Red Cross Red Crescent is calling for better recognition, funding and promotion of volunteerism as an integral part of health systems throughout the world. They provide a crucial link between people living with HIV and the treatment they need to survive, as well as creating a wide range of benefits for others and for themselves.

People across Latin America and the Caribbean must work together to help ensure universal access to cost-effective HIV testing, treatment and care, saving lives and preventing further infections.

Video: Vietnam

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Don't forget to use your voice
If volunteerism, health, HIV or disaster risk reduction are the most important things to you, let us know. We need your voice.
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