Frontiers’ volunteers: a time for giving and reflecting

Author: Anastasia Long

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, volunteers have been at the forefront of community and societal responses. This month, we talk to fellow Frontons Rachael Benson, Salla Lyyra, Simona Pesce, Francesca Tettamanzi and Hugo Tornero about their volunteering work at Partage Warehouse, an organization that ‘fights against hunger and food waste on a daily basis’.

Photo credit: Simona Pesce

What does the organization you volunteered for do? 

“The organization we volunteered for is called Partage and it’s a food bank covering the canton of Geneva. They redistribute unsold food items and hygiene products from supermarkets and other businesses to associations supporting people in difficult situations, helping to simultaneously combat hunger and food waste. Since the start of the Covid pandemic, the number of people in need of such support has grown significantly in Geneva, as with most other places, and Partage has stepped up its activities in response, now distributing thousands of emergency food bags per week,” explains Rachael Benson, journal specialist in Frontiers’ Humanities and Social Sciences program.

“Indeed, founded in 2005, Partage is the only food bank in the canton of Geneva with different channels of receiving goods. For example, they do big collections outside supermarkets where people can donate as well as supermarkets making direct contributions. And Partage purchases some goods directly. They also have a canteen where they cook meals which might be the only warm meal for many,” adds Francesca Tettamanzi, senior learning and development specialist, who aims to do everything possible (and impossible!) to make Frontiers an enjoyable and rewarding place to work.

“Partage does an amazing job providing support through a supply of over 4000 bags per week to around fifty not-for-profit associations which go on to distributing the bags straight to people in need. These bags contain essential food and hygiene products that prove to be life-saving to people,” mentions Simona Pesce, communications specialist at Frontiers’ Lausanne office.

What was your motivation for choosing it? 

“The amount of people in need increased significantly all around the world in view of the pandemic and the drastic consequences it brought. There are lot of people in need in Switzerland which many find surprising given the country’s reputation. I had been considering to volunteer with my colleagues for a while, and Partage seemed to be a perfect opportunity to get involved and make a difference,” starts Salla Lyyra, social media specialist in the MarCom department.

“It is always nice to participate in activities that bring help and hope to people who are less fortunate. Every such activity contributes positively to the greater public good. Also, for me personally, there was an element of team-building where I got a chance to meet fellow Frontons from other departments whom I might not necessarily have a chance to interact with through the line of work,” adds Hugo Tornero, people business partner in the People team in Switzerland.

“I was encouraged by other Frontiers’ colleagues to get involved but I have always loved volunteering. It gives you such a reality check on the fact that even in one of the happiest countries in the world there are people who live in poverty or with little means of support. And winter is certainly the time when help is needed the most,” continues Simona.

“Having previously lived in Geneva, I was aware of Partage but hadn’t worked with them before, so when I heard of this volunteering activity through Alaya, I was keen to be involved,” says Rachael. “Echoing my colleagues’ sentiment, I saw it as a wonderful opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to the community.”

“As the ambassador of the volunteering initiatives at Frontiers, I do try to lead by example and engage as an employee rather than an organizer. I have previously done a lot of nature-based activities, whereas Partage was my very first urban experience. As an Alaya advocate, I try to understand various landscapes and areas where we can help as individuals and as a company that promotes volunteering and provides 24 hours of paid time for our employees to engage in charitable causes,” concludes Francesca, who is a Frontiers’ volunteering veteran with quite a few projects under her belt.

What exactly did you do as part of your volunteering? 

“We were all eager to get started but the parking was a bit hidden and we got lost!” laughs Hugo. “We got back on track fast and met the person in charge of the Partage warehouse who kindly explained the processes and what we needed to do. The team was very friendly and helpful.”

“We knew that we would be sorting food items in a warehouse, but we were unsure of the specifics before arriving. Once we found the entrance (after a few failed attempts, as Hugo says!), we were quickly shown what to do. We each had a shopping trolley, and our task was to fill shopping bags with the specified food items, namely milk, pasta, tuna, salmon, lentils and nuts. There was a row of large crates each containing one of the items, and we repeatedly walked along this row filling the bags in our trolleys. There were several other volunteers there who seemed to know the best techniques for filling the trolleys speedily, so we followed their lead and quickly got into the swing of things,” elaborates Rachael.

“It definitely improved my shopping skills too! Now I know how to tackle those supermarket rows with speed and logic!” Hugo adds.

What did you learn from the experience?  

“I learned we could all do something that might seem small but could make a huge difference to a community of people in need: from the homeless to those who have lost their jobs,” ponders Simona. “I also learned that the pandemic made a lot of people require support more than ever before, and I enjoyed seeing how hard Partage works to continue funding this much needed food distribution and bringing tangible results.”

“I agree, it was eye-opening to learn about the extent of the need for food aid in Geneva, and to find out about the activities that Partage and their partners carry out to support people in the area,“ says Rachael.

“We only volunteered for a few hours. But when everyone chips in, even a little bit, we contribute a huge deal towards a bigger cause of aiding those who need help the most in our local communities and collectively we can make a difference even globally. Also, I had kept seeing those pink groceries bags in supermarkets, and now, after having assembled a few of them myself, I know what a beacon of hope they are for many families,” continues Salla.

“This volunteering experience gave me time to re-evaluate many things we tend to take for granted. It was insightful to try and understand what it would feel like to be in someone else’s shoes when a bag of groceries means so much,” mentions Francesca. “I also got to meet new colleagues and bond which I always enjoy, being a people person.”

“COVID-19 has had a major devastating impact on households’ livelihoods and access to basic nutritious food. From my perspective, I definitely realized even more that we need to be thankful for what we have: a great job, being healthy, having family, being able to afford food and a roof over the head,” sums up Hugo.

Despite getting lost at the car park, our Frontons definitely succeeded in finding time to reflect upon things that truly matter and, most importantly, to give to those who are in need. For more than a decade, Frontons have been showing a great passion and big heart for the most pressing world causes, both as scientists and as citizens of the world. At Frontiers, we are committed to contributing to communities in a meaningful and sustainable way and encourage our people to participate in charity activities via our volunteering partner platform Alaya.​

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Frontiers is a signatory of the United Nations Publishers COMPACT. This interview has been published in support of the United Nations Sustainable Goal 2: Zero Hunger