Yiannis Yiannaki Volunteers & NGOs Cyprus
LEADING THE WAY FOR VOLUNTEERS IN EUROPE
MEET YIANNIS YIANNAKI
Presidential Commissioner of Volunteers and Non-Governmental Organisations Cyprus
Yiannis Yiannaki Volunteers & NGOs Cyprus
Yiannis Yiannaki Volunteers & NGOs Cyprus – Cyprus is leading the way in Europe through its volunteering schemes. Our Island has a high proportion of volunteers who help our citizens through a variety of different ways. The success of volunteering in Cyprus can undoubtedly be attributed to the hard work of the Presidential Commissioner of Volunteers, Mr Yiannis Yiannaki. He was born and grew up in Larnaca. As he says, “it is my city”. Following his National Guard Service of two years, he went to the United States to study at the University of San Diego. He looks back on this period as a fantastic time, as it took him out of his comfort zone and opened him up to new experiences. On his return to Cyprus after his studies, he took up a position with the Youth Board. He has been involved in volunteering throughout his life with the Scouts, Red Cross, and was the Vice President of Doctors without Borders. Today, he still lives in Larnaca as he loves the city and its position by the sea.
HOW DID YOU BECOME INVOLVED IN VOLUNTEER WORK?
My first experience of volunteer work was when I was a young boy in the Boy Scouts in Larnaca. This experience stayed with me throughout my life and I continued to do volunteer work in the USA when I was studying there. When I returned to Cyprus in the 1990s, I applied for a position as a Youth Officer for the European Youth Programmes with the Youth Board. I worked there for twelve years and implemented the first European Youth Programme in Cyprus. We went on to introduce three new generations of youth programmes, which enabled me to learn exactly how the European Union works. During that time, I was involved, at a volunteer level, in the most significant campaign to fight racism and intolerance with the Council of Europe. From six corners of Europe, trains with hundreds of youths on board passed through the capitals of different European countries and met in Strasbourg. Our train travelled for a week so that we could spread the message of ‘Tolerance’ from Greece, Italy, Bulgaria, Romania, Estonia and Cyprus. We organised major youth events wherever we visited. Through this experience, I saw the many benefits of people coming together to help others.
WHEN WERE YOU APPOINTED COMMISSIONER OF VOLUNTEERS AND NGOs AND WHAT DOES YOUR WORK INVOLVE?
In 2013, I was appointed by the President of the Republic, Mr Nicos Anastasiades. It is a unique commission as there is no other country in the European Union that has such a political position. Our main aim is to implement policies for the third sector, which include four important pillars: volunteering, civil society, non-governmental organisations and active participation.
We have created the infrastructures such as the House of Volunteers and developed specific activities in schools to educate and guide the young to be involved in volunteering. For example, in times of crisis, it is essential to have an army of volunteers who can help. We are engaged in developing a humanitarian centre, plus other policies including animal welfare, fighting crime and substance abuse, and enhancing strategies to support vulnerable people. We have volunteers for all sectors of society, including culture and sport.
We have also developed The Informal Council of Ministers Meeting, which is a role-playing meeting where the younger generation can understand how the Council of Ministers works. It gives them the chance to see how the council takes decisions, followed by the opportunity to ask questions and express their opinion to the Ministers and the President of the Republic. Our main aim with this is to encourage the active participation of our young people. As a department, we are also involved in the implementation of many policies from the European Union, the Council of Europe and the United Nations.
Following an extensive study, we are delighted to see that the level of volunteers in Cyprus stands at 12.4% of the population. Still, our aim through our work is always to increase this figure and for people to see the benefits of volunteering.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF VOLUNTEERING?
There are many reasons why people volunteer but the main one is the fact that studies have proved it enhances personal development. Through volunteering, you learn a new set of skills, and we are very keen for our young to volunteer as it has shown to be the best tool for preventing crime, alcohol and drug abuse. Volunteering and active participation are crucial for the younger generation, so we are concentrating a lot of our work in schools and universities to make sure our young become involved in this sector.
We are also involved in environmental issues and have several projects connected with climate change. This year will be the third year of our awards which we set up to acknowledge individuals, groups, and school children who have done exemplary work in the volunteer sector. This is where citizens nominate a volunteer to be honoured by the President of the Republic. The categories include volunteering at work, schools, in the army, and people who have actively participated.
WHAT ELSE DOES THE COMMISSION DO?
We are heavily involved in implementing policies to do with the rights and responsibilities of the volunteers and organisations which have been approved by the Council of Ministers. We also have the charter on what constitutes an active citizen. Our main aim in all our work is to have a strong civil society.
A unique programme we operate during the summer, with the help of 400 volunteers, is the Observation of Fires Team. Throughout the summer months, they are on the lookout for smoke or flames and will then, in turn, inform the Fire Department.
We also have a protocol of how we would use our volunteers in times of crisis. This might be to do with major fires, earthquakes, or a migrant situation. We have hundreds of volunteers ready to react.
There are 7000 Non-Governmental Associations in Cyprus, and since 1st January 2020, they operate within a stringent framework that implements strict criteria for financial transparency and good governance, as we believe this empowers them more.
DID YOU ALWAYS WANT TO BE INVOLVED IN POLITICS?
Yes. From a young age, I have been involved in politics. It was always with the primary aim that it would help me implement policies that I believe in. When I was a Scout Master, I remember a young boy with hearing problems and a boy with special needs coming into the Scout group. I immediately wondered how I could handle them but was amazed by the young scouts who brought them into their circle. It showed me how young people included everyone and how they all communicated equally between them when involved in volunteering.
When I was the Vice -President of Doctors without Borders, I was involved in a mission to Palestine. I remember when a bullet hit a young girl and how the volunteer doctors saved her life. I was there and witnessed saving a life. This showed me the strength of volunteers coming together to help others.
In Cyprus, our blood donors consistently save lives – we have one of the highest blood donor rates in the world. I believe it is one of the best volunteer activities we can do to help others.
WHAT IS THE BEST PART OF YOUR JOB?
When I see a project from conception to fruition and witness the impact I wanted it to have. I always want to be productive and for my work to make a difference to others. I want to make changes that improve the lives of our citizens. Through my position, I can make a difference for our people, our country, and the world.
WHAT IS THE WORST PART OF YOUR JOB?
When you want a policy to be implemented but sometimes are held back by difficulties and barriers which are out of your control.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE CONCERNING THE CURRENT SITUATION WITH COVID-19?
We all need to do our part and implement the advice of the experts. The Government is doing their part, and we have to do ours. During this pandemic, we have activated our protocol for volunteer work and have managed more than 8,000 activities during these months. Our citizens need to know their rights and responsibilities. Each one of us needs to play our part to protect the general health and the general population. We must do all we can to protect ourselves and our families.
WHO HAS BEEN THE BIGGEST INFLUENCE IN YOUR LIFE?
Without question, my Father. In 1955, during the Cyprus guerrilla war, he was fighting in the mountains. He was captured and tortured to betray important information. He kept quiet and was buried alive. He managed to escape and headed straight back to the mountains to continue fighting for what he believed in. He was ready to give up his life for his country and freedom. My Father has also been involved in politics, parliament, volunteering, and has been a role model for me to follow.
WHAT ARE YOUR FUTURE PLANS?
We want to implement a new programme in schools that concerns the seventeen goals of the Sustainable Development of the United Nations. This will start later this year. We also want to proceed with a programme of recognition for the work of volunteers. I am aiming to increase co-operation with the universities further.
We are also planning a European Seminar for Volunteers which will take place in Cyprus, and working on our third study for the level of Volunteers in Cyprus. In general, my main aim for the future is to increase the number of volunteers we have and encourage the active participation of our citizens.
To become a Volunteer or to find out more about Volunteer Work in Cyprus, visit the official website at volunteercommissioner.gov.cy.
Interview by Sarah Coyne
Published by Cyprus in Style August 2020 – #InStyleBusinessNetwork
Yiannis Yiannaki Volunteers & NGOs Cyprus