‘I encourage women who take career breaks for childbirth to volunteer’

Raquel Daniel is a community mobiliser, development strategist and educator working in disadvantaged communities in Nigeria, with focus on education for children, as well as sexual and reproductive health for adolescent girls through Beyond the Classroom Foundation.

In 2015, the graduate of Education from University of Lagos, joined the Lagos Global Shaper of the World Economic Forum and received the LEAP Africa Social Innovator Program fellowship. She is a Climate Reality Leader, a Carrington Fellow and a two-time Mentor of the Queens Young Leaders Program. She has received numerous awards, including the 2020 Achievers Award, 2016 Honour Nigeria Community Development Award by Trinity House, the 2014 Le Roche Exemplary Leadership Award by former governor of Lagos State Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode, and was a nominee of the Global Foundation Young Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2013.

Prior to Co-founding NzuriAiki.com, an online platform designed to showcase volunteer opportunities in Nigeria, she served as the Admin lead at the Secretariat of the Presidential Enabling Business Environment Council (in the office of the Vice President). Daniel is also the author of Flow: a girl’s guide to menstruation and There Is a New Virus in Town: a Coronavirus awareness book for children. She speaks with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA on her passion and drive for volunteering.

Take us through your journey into volunteering?
I started volunteering when I had no idea what it was called. Growing up, my late mum emphasised the importance of service to my siblings and me, so volunteering came to me naturally. She would say that if you serve with all your heart, you could open any door. Service became one of my strongest values from a very young age.

My journey into volunteering started with my mum; she lived a life of purpose and of service. She always helped anyone who came to her for help; she had a club for children where she taught them about God; she encouraged me to serve the refreshments and clean up after everyone leaves. That made me see everything I do as a service.

As a teenager, I became very active in my school; I would quickly volunteer to help when there was a need. I can say for a fact, it helped me become really confident growing up. After secondary school, I got my first job while volunteering at my mum’s friend’s store. From then onwards, I continued volunteering actively everywhere I went.

In my first year in University, I joined AIESEC: an international platform for young people to explore and develop their leadership potential. Being an AIESECer showed me the rewards of volunteering and further reinforced my mum’s point about service opening doors. I got my first job offer from a UK firm in my final year without applying; I have volunteered for a lot of nonprofits since then.

You recently launched an online platform for volunteering. Tell us about it, why did you decide on it?
Yes, I recently co-founded Nzuriaiki.com, an online platform that showcases volunteer opportunities in Nigeria and connects organisations with volunteers. I decided to launch it because volunteering helped me gain skills when I had no skills to get a good job. I was orphaned as a teenager and was left to cater to my three younger brothers. Needing a job but having no work experience, I decided to volunteer for free to build up my capacity, which is something my mum always emphasised anyway. Through volunteering, I developed professional, technical and soft skills such as leadership and critical thinking, but most importantly, it boosted my self-confidence.

Prior to getting into University, I used those skills to apply for jobs, which I got easily. The skills I learned during my time volunteering gave me the opportunity to find flexible part-time jobs allowing me to earn and continue to take care of my siblings while paying my way through school. I decided to launch this platform, because organisations want certain skills and work experience, which a lot of graduates don’t have. Seeing that volunteering worked for me, I believe it is a solution that can tackle the problem of unemployment in Nigeria. By serving and giving your time, it can turn up to learning or earning opportunity.

Share with us some of your volunteering activities and causes?
For a very long time, I didn’t use the word ‘founder’ as my title for Beyond the Classroom Foundation; I see myself privileged to lead this nonprofit in the last ten years first as a volunteer than the initiator. We are focused on two causes: education and sexual & reproductive health education for girls. We enrolled 107 children at the Karon Majigi Internally displaced persons (IDP) camp in Abuja back to school in September 2019 and renovated a primary school in Lagos, through partnership with one of Nigeria’s leading banks in February 2020. Because we work with children and girls, when COVID-19 struck, we immediately provided learning materials to 200 children at the Karon Majigi IDP camp, extending it to other children outside the 107 we enrolled in school.

During the lockdown, we also raised funds and provided food items to over 800 families with children and sanitary pads for about 700 girls through the Pads in a Pandemic Project. While distributing free food items to families during the lockdown, I noticed a need and quickly designed – There is a New Virus in Town; a Coronavirus awareness book for children. So far, we have printed and distributed 2,000 copies of the book to children in Abuja, Lagos and Port Harcourt. These are some of the volunteering activities I have been involved in within the last year.

Should volunteering necessarily be done for free? What should spur people to get engaged in volunteering?
Volunteering is a voluntary act of an individual or group freely giving time and labour for community service. I like to define volunteering as the act of giving the gift of your time to a cause. With these two definitions, it is clear that you volunteer without expecting anything in return. So, yes, volunteering should be free, but it doesn’t have to be if the organisation can give a stipend to cover transportation and feeding. To respond to your second question, the benefit of volunteering is enormous. After over a decade working in the nonprofit space in Nigeria, I have seen firsthand how volunteer work broadens and deepens experiences of volunteers, providing them skill development in a way that is often not possible or available to them elsewhere. With the unemployment and underemployment rate in Nigeria at 55.7 per cent, young people are desperately looking for jobs. I believe knowing the benefit of volunteering can spur young people to volunteer.

With the global pandemic, do you think more people got engaged with volunteering for these causes more than ever?
Due to the pandemic, there has been an increase in online volunteering and lower turn out for physical volunteering activities across the world. What we have seen is that some nonprofit organisations currently have no ongoing projects, while others are working on the frontlines. These organisations working on the frontline have recorded a higher increase in the number of volunteer turnout. Even though the pandemic affected physical volunteering, it caused a rise in online volunteering; allowing more people to give their time to organisations they believe in without leaving their homes.

What informed your decision to write your first book, Flow?
I wrote Flow out of the desire to reach more girls with the message of menstruation. What I learned about menstruation in school was focused solely only on the biology of the menstrual cycle. The lessons left out useful information about our bodies’ anatomy and the use of sanitary products. I remember educating my friends in secondary school, and many were utterly surprised by how I knew what I was teaching them. When I told them my father had taught me, they all couldn’t believe it. I wrote this book to help girls understand and learn about the changes in their bodies in a fun, easy and relatable way. The book includes details girls need to know about puberty, preparing for their first period, managing period cramps and types of sanitary products to use.

In the book, I spoke about how my late father taught me all I needed to know about menstruation, shared my personal experiences, practical advice and information on managing menstruation. I believe this book will impact girls positively because, beyond sharing about menstruation and hygiene, I shared personal experiences and spoke about my late father. Flow, the menstruation book for girls, was designed to address the real concerns every young girl goes through during puberty. A lot of girls grow up without any knowledge of puberty and menstruation and I desire that the book guides and helps any girl who reads it navigate through the world of puberty with ease.

As a mum and wife, speaker and inspiration to a lot of young girls, how do you manage these portfolios and still be at your best?
I always baulk at this question, because it has been difficult, but I think I am finding my way. After I had my daughter, it was hard to focus on a lot of things, and sometimes, I barely made it to the end of the day with my sanity still intact. As a working mum with a demanding schedule, it sometimes feels utterly impossible to be everything to everyone all the time. I was constantly pulled in all directions, and the fact that every time I choose to focus my attention in one area of my life, I am by default not choosing someone or something else, keeps me up at night. I got to a place where I finally told myself ‘girl, you can do it all by yourself’.

Yes, I still have a lot on my plate and I try to manage them pretty well now with the help of scheduling apps, calendar reminders, my assistant, family and my amazing husband. This is not to say I am not failing at other things, but the things I deem as important always comes first; that I take very seriously. I also realised that to be at my best, I needed to say No to a lot of programmes, projects and event invitations. With the entire project I run, I have learned to prioritise, schedule and manage my time the best way I can.

What is your advice to women seeking ways to balance home front and career?
In between working and raising a family, you are going to face some struggles depending on your circumstances. But it is your tenacity to believe in yourself and your resilience that will help you stand firm even if you don’t balance it all. I’d advise, find a support system! My family has been my greatest source of strength and support. So, look around you and see where you can find support, either physically or emotionally. Also, you don’t have to say yes to every single invitation or extracurricular activity.

Determine how much your schedule can handle and choose the activities that you can handle without burning out. Don’t feel bad when you have to say no. Remember that it is possible to have both a successful career and a fulfilling family life. It may not look exactly like how you pictured it, but just give it your best and take it one day at a time.

How beneficial is volunteering to women?
Volunteering is beneficial to everyone. However, I encourage women who take career breaks due to childbirth to find ways to volunteer a few hours a week during that break. This is because, in so many cases, motherhood limits women’s career progress and women who take a career break greater than two years have seen their careers decelerated.

I will use myself as example. I took a career break to have and care for my daughter, knowing I would be away from full time employment for two years; I started volunteering actively twice a week. I am aware that a long gap in my work experience could hurt me professionally. This is why I strongly advise women who want to take a break from work to care for their children themselves, to find time to volunteer and fill that gap in their professional work experience.

Another benefit of volunteering for women, especially mothers is that volunteering is fun and can help them clear their minds away from the many activities of raising their little ones. It can help reduce stress, keep them mentally stimulated, combat post-partum depression and provide a sense of renewed purpose.

You have worked with teenage girls for over 10 years, what advice do you have for young girls?
Believe in yourself! Be bold and take chances! Be authentic! Invest in yourself, including making time to network, find mentors, and eventually, become a mentor to others. Don’t sell yourself short. Go after opportunities, even if you are not sure you can do them; this is a great way to grow.

What next should we expect from you?
I am working on two new books to be released this year. Not to give too much away, but to fuel your curiosity; one will be a comic for boys.

What is your philosophy of life?
Life is short, so, make sure that at the end of your life, your actions and your work here on earth make you, your family and your God proud.


Source: Guardians

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