After a career in marketing, sales and public relations, Anja Merret will be joining VSO’s forces in Vietnam, to work with disabled young people and help them learn skills and develop careers that enable them to be self-sufficient and independent. This is the kind of career twist we do not see every day – an initiative that deserves attention and a story that needs to be told. We interviewed Anja, whom we know from StumbleUpon, and here is what she had to say.
Everything PR: How did you become a volunteer in this field and what made you choose Vietnam?
Anja Merret: I was actually searching on line for an opportunity to volunteer in the city I live in and happened to stumble across VSO which places volunteers overseas – hence Volunteer Services Oversees, or VSO.
So I applied not expecting to be accepted and was therefore thrilled when I got the confirmation. I had been trying to work for a non-profit for at least ten years, if not longer but possibly just didn’t have the right kind of qualification for that kind of environment. None of my applications were ever successful.
EP: Why Vietnam?
Anja Merret: As VSO person you don’t get much of a choice as to where you are posted. You can turn a placement down. I did. There was some interest in me from two NGO’s based in the middle of India.
After speaking to a volunteer working in the area I discovered that it gets really hot there in summer, round about 46 degrees and I just couldn’t cope with the idea of that heat. So I turned that down.
Then I had interest from Rwanda which I really liked the look of. But the employer felt I didn’t have sufficient advocacy experience. I was disappointed with that result. I lived in South Africa for 50 years of my life so felt that I would be able to bring that experience to the job. On the other hand my French isn’t that good.
An offer came from Vietnam and it looked really interesting. Over and above that I thought that the Western World had some debt towards Vietnam especially with a view to disability. Just consider the amount of poison that was thrown on these poor people during the Vietnam war. It’s probably still working its way out of the land and people. Hopefully it will in time.
EP: What is your professional background and how is this going to help you in this new endeavor?
Anja Merret: I have an MBA with marketing as my final elective. I have worked in marketing, sales and public relations, as well as management in this field for almost all of my working life. I also have close on ten years experience managing a training facility so have experience in the learning environment.
The placement requires me to assist a non profit that offers disabled young people work opportunities mostly in making arts and crafts items. My function will be to develop the business. This will include assessing the products currently being made and advise, in consultation with the organisation and retail outlets, on possible expansion of the product range.
I would further assist with training sales staff, compiling advertising material such as brochures and an online presence, possibly even an ecommerce site. And I have ideas about putting together training material for use by other disabled organisations.
All of the above is subject to change. It depends on what I find! I have only very limited information at present and have seen none of the products, work facilities or retail opportunities.
EP: Will you continue your online activities while doing your voluntary work?
Anja Merret: Yes I will carry on with my social media activities. I would imagine that I will not be as up to date with my activities as I am now. It does seem that access to the internet will not be a problem.
EP: How are you currently, or do you intend to use social media to reach out to people who care and might help with your volunteer activities?
Anja Merret: I have started with my first blog post on Vietnam. I will be ‘re-engineering’ my personal blog. There will be more focus on talking about my experiences in the country and as a volunteer.
If the opportunity and need arises, I will certainly see if I can use social media to further the cause of the organisation especially with a view to creating awareness for the products and efforts. My other internet marketing skills, such as knowledge in SEO, will be very useful too should we decide on selling products via a website.
EP: How would you respond to criticism that children in your country may need help too?
Good point. However, I must say that the UK has amazing systems in place to look after disabled people. Which doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. But there is already such an awareness in the country that there are many people focused on this area already.
Vietnam, as with many other countries, has been a little slower to move with the modern concept of supporting disabled people by training them up to lead independent lives.
At the moment the Vietnamese government and the country’s citizens view disabled people as people that need caring for. VSO is hoping to change this perception. Disabled people are able to learn skills and develop careers that enable them to be self-sufficient and independent.
EP: Is there a special message you would like to send to our readers?
Anja Merret: It would be great to have visitors to my blog at www.anjamerret.com and for as many people as possible to engage with me in my journey. Questions, advice, comments would be hugely welcome. Oh and if anybody has ideas on how to market arts and crafts world wide, would love to hear from them.
I am just so thrilled to have this chance to give back something. It seems to be a baby boomer kind of thing! We’ve had the opportunity of leading good lives, making a good living. We want to give something back.
A small donation to VSO, there is a link on the site, would be wonderful but definitely not obligatory!