A Peek Into A Volunteer’s Life: Captain Afsal

A country’s brilliance can be measured by the equality of its youth. It is this group of motivated individuals who rise up to the situations and bring revolutionary changes to the society that we live in. They see the potential to grow and take up the challenges thrown at them with the urge and enthusiasm of a visionary and end up paving way for the glorious day where we shall have the country of our dreams, a place where our existence is not threatened by forces, our living is not questioned and everyone lives with filial understanding and compliance.

Here is an individual who realized this issue and took to volunteering and motivating individuals bubbling with the capability of getting into action work for a cause that can contribute to the people’s wellbeing and growth as a community. A childhood wish of becoming the captain of his house led him to grow his leadership skills and find out what he was capable of. Recognized for his works and contributions as a volunteer, he achieves what he dreamt of and believes that we can be the change that sets us on course a future once considered unattainable. In conversation with Afsal Mohammed on his journey with volunteering that led to The Gulmohar Foundation.

Tell us about yourself, your background, and your previous ventures. 

I would like to introduce myself as a Volunteer. Volunteering is my ever-time passion and life. For the last 15 years, I have been volunteering with different organizations for various causes and currently am volunteering to bring sustainable society changes through youth-led initiatives. My aim is to create a network of socially committed volunteers who can be the change-makers in our community and I have undertaken 100+ initiatives with the involvement of 10,000+ youth all over India. 

Being a Mechanical Production Engineering student from TKM College of Engineering (2015-2019),  I was supposed to think, learn and work mechanically. But I decided against it and had dropped my graduate studies in the third year when I had a CGPA close to 8. I started to get involved in social community works at Perinad Gramapanchayath in Kollam and had volunteered in the field of Education, Health, and Environment Conservation. 

In 2018, I started my first social enterprise – The Gulmohar Foundation, a youth-led organization working to create future leaders and social entrepreneurs through capacity development, Volunteering, and Global Citizenship Education. In 2020, I started the Institute of Social Volunteering, a socio-educational startup to empower volunteers and organizations. 

Could you tell us the story behind ‘Captain’? 

I always love the word CAPTAIN, and it is close to my heart. I first heard the phrase CAPTAIN when I was in school. My school was having a house system, where the students will be divided into four houses. Each house will be led by a House Captain, a student of +1 class. Since my 5th standard, I wanted to be the CAPTAIN. I was a shy person then, but good marks in the exams led me to become the Class Leader. I identified my leadership and coordination skills then and started to involve more in school activities. 

In fifth grade, I started my first organization – DXB (Dangerous Boys) with the support of my classmates and crowned myself as the CAPTAIN. It took another six years for me to achieve my dream and become the real CAPTAIN. www.keralainsider.com

What inspired you to start The Gulmohar Foundation? Is there a particular event that inspired you to begin? 

It’s the experience that led my way to The Gulmohar Foundation. For more than 12 years, I had volunteered and coordinated programs for different organizations. I had faced the sweetness and bitterness of volunteering. I had also gone through many value mismatches and was frustrated by the unethical approaches of organizations towards volunteers. ​I felt like organizations treating volunteers as unpaid laborers to do things for their needs. The work they do is not sustainable and is not improving the skills of volunteers. 

I met a lot of like-minded people, discussed and collected feedback about it. As a volunteer, I know what the youth exactly needs and how they can be molded.​ So as an experiment, I started a youth-led organization, The Gulmohar Foundation. On the other side, I started thinking – “What will be my life like after College? How will I do my social works after college”. Thus, I decided to create my platform to carry on my social initiatives. 

What are some of the challenges you faced in your career? How did you overcome these? 

Initially, there was a lack of like-minded and dedicated volunteers to support the initiatives because I was in a small circle between the four walls of my college. The students were wholly ignorant of the vast number of social opportunities before them. They never tried to realize or experience the goodness of these generous acts. So it was a more significant task to make these people aware of the necessity of volunteers in every community. 

But the down-to-earth nature of the fellow-beings working with helps us to create a personal bond with them. Appreciating and valuing everyone for their contributions have inspired and motivated many others. Apart from our usual volunteering works of scheduled programs, we gave them real-life experiences and exposures that gave them a satisfactory feeling. There were no boundaries; all were treated equally and were free to share and take up ideas. Thus, we created a sense of togetherness among ourselves which makes us a family. Therefore, I was able to motivate more youth to the act of volunteering. I believe challenges are opportunities to learn. 

The core values of The Gulmohar Foundation – Empathy, Trust, Ownership, Sharing, and Collaboration are the best approaches to overcome any challenge. 

Could you brief us about a few milestones you have reached so far? A sneak peeks into your achievements. 

The first recognition for my social initiatives was from United Nations Volunteer India. I had undertaken their online campaign on International Volunteers Day and had motivated 1234+ volunteers to the act of volunteering. I was selected as the Top Online Volunteer in India for the campaign. That recognition had given national attention to me and my volunteering. Later I was chosen as Volunteer, Leader, and now the Coordinator of United Nations Volunteers – VForce. 

Later I received the iVolunteer Award, the premier national recognition for exceptional volunteer and development in India’s social sector in 2018 & 2019 for my initiatives in Perinad Gramapanchayat. I have also received international recognitions like Millennium Fellowship 2018 and Millennium Ocean Prize 2019. 

I was also selected for Jagriti Yatra – a 15 day, 8000 km national odyssey to meet the role models – social and business entrepreneurs – with the vision of ‘building India through enterprise.’ My idea was selected as the Best Entrepreneurial Idea at the Biz Gyan Tree competition during Jagriti Yatra. Recently I was selected as Global Climate Reality Leader and the Global Ambassador of Peace First in Asia and Oceania. 

Do you have a role model you look up to? If yes, what are the qualities that you admire of that person? If no, then why? 

During my college days, Mahatma Gandhi and APJ Abdul Kalam were my role models. But when I grew up, I never felt the importance of having a role model in life. I do things that satisfy and give me inner peace. I get inspired by my works. Thinking of the positive impact my initiative creates gives me the courage and inspires me to move forward. I believe we should compete with ourselves and be the better version of ourselves. Everyone has their potential; identify it, enhance it and pave your way. If you have the passion, you will do it! 

Being a traveler, you get to hear stories that move men. Do you have a particular account that affected you deeply? 

Journey of a Volunteer! That’s what I call my traveling. I had traveled to 20+ Indian states and had met volunteers over there. I always travel to meet people and hear their stories, the stories of change. Every volunteer is unique, and so are their stories. I got a lot of ideas and learned through these journeys. 

My journey through the villages in Jhansi had helped me to develop an idea, which has been selected as the Best Entrepreneurial Idea at the Biz Gyan Tree competition during Jagriti Yatra. During my travels, I learn from them and think of possibilities to bring it to Kerala. 

I have many personal experiences and their tales  during the journey – the street boy who gave food for me, the OLA bike driver who took me when I fainted, the man who saved me from the dogs in Delhi streets, etc. 

What are your plans? Where do you see yourself in five years? 

Volunteering is my life. I will be volunteering in the social sector for many more years. 

Besides The Gulmohar Foundation and Institute of Social Volunteering, now I am on the initial stage work of my new social enterprise – CAPTAINS Social Solutions. We are developing an inclusive, sustainable ecosystem for volunteers and organizations to network, collaborate and initiate community projects. We ideate, design, execute and outreach social projects, thus acting as a support system for volunteers and organizations. We aim to bridge the gap between opportunities, volunteers, and organizations. 

In the next five years, I could see myself as a Volunteer Trainer and Social Consultant who mentors the largest network of youth in India to initiate sustainable solutions to address social issues. 

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