Volunteer stories

What is PULSE?

PULSE is our employee volunteering programme where eligible employees are matched to a not-for-profit partner, such as Save the Children, for a three to six month assignment. Volunteers contribute their skills to solve healthcare challenges at home and abroad.

On this page, you can follow the journey of a selection of our employees currently on a PULSE assignment.  Each of the four employees listed below will be sharing their story on a monthly basis.

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Vanina Kacheva
Vanina Kacheva

Hi, I am Vanina. I am originally from Bulgaria but for the last 4 years I’ve been based in Poland, in my current role as an Area Marketing Manager for Central and Eastern Europe within our Consumer Healthcare business. I am going on a six-month PULSE assignment as a communications specialist with Save the Children in Kenya, supporting its Signature Programme, which aims to reduce maternal and newborn mortality in the Bungoma & Busia counties. 

Video blog #5 – January 2017

In her final vlog, Vanina talks about what she has learned from PULSE from a personal and professional perspective, and shares details of an exciting new job that she has landed at GSK.

Video blog #4 – October 2016

In her fourth vlog, Vanina is back out in the field and talks about a new Save the Children initiative to bring together women-only and men-only groups in local communities  for them to discuss different topics or challenges the community faces such as the importance of giving birth in a health facility.

Video blog #3 – September 2016

In her third vlog, Vanina invites some of her colleagues at Save the Children to share their insights from a recent communications workshop on writing case studies and sharing stories.

Video blog #2 – August 2016

In her second vlog, Vanina talks about an initiative under the Save the Children signature programme whereby qualified “boda boda” drivers (motorcycle taxi drivers) transport expectant mothers to local healthcare facilities.  She introduces Godwin, one of the drivers, and baby Hilga who arrived by special delivery!

Video blog #1 – July 2016

In her first vlog, Vanina has just arrived in Kenya and looks ahead to her PULSE assignment and exciting adventure in Africa.

Neeraj Markandeywar
Neeraj Markandeywar

Hi, I’m Neeraj. I joined GSK India as a medical advisor over four years ago.  I’m undertaking a three month assignment with AmeriCares and will continue to be based in Mumbai. AmeriCares India Foundation is a public charitable trust that provides medical aid and neighbouring countries.  On assignment, I will be supporting health education and work with mobile medical camps in Mumbai.  I’ll also travel in the event of any unfortunate natural disasters but I’m hoping there won’t be a need for this.

Blog 4 – October 2016

The magical 90 days of my PULSE journey have gone by so fast. It has been an exciting and fulfilling journey. I worked in a totally different setup and was completely out of my comfort zone. This challenged me to give my best and make my contributions count. What made this journey special was the opportunity to touch lives of so many individuals with my work.

The PULSE orientation training prepared all the volunteers for this kind of journey and made us realise that this was a unique chance that very few from a corporate setup will ever get. The most significant teachings from the orientation program for me were “sustainability” and “practicality”. These helped me deliver the best possible services which will most likely have a long term impact on my development organization, Americares.

My PULSE assignment helped me to learn about the diverse society in which we live, but have very superficial knowledge about. It is not easy to understand the difficulties that people living in underprivileged parts of society have to face on a day-to-day basis. The most important things I kept in mind while developing solutions for these individuals were “what will be the impact of my work?”, “are my initiatives practical?” and “will they have any positive impact on lives of the people whom I am trying to help?”.

There was a sense of urgency in how Americares worked towards serving the underprivileged sections of society. At the same time there was focus on improving and maintaining quality of the work. This is something which I will take back to GSK and adopt in my job; continuous improvement. Maintaining patient focus at each and every step of work is a common theme for both Americares and GSK.

One of the key reasons I was able to make a positive contribution to Americares was how open and accommodating the team was. They accepted me as one of their own and the freedom with which they allowed me to evaluate, plan and execute initiatives made all the difference. I will always be thankful to the Americares team for letting me work with them and contribute towards the great work which they are doing.

Going back to the opening paragraph of this blog, PULSE has given me the opportunity to touch the lives of so many people, in a way that I never would have been able to previously. But I just want to end by saying that it has also been a great learning experience for me.  I’m now much more confident adapting to new situations, have a greater appreciation for different ways of working and most importantly I have a wider perspective of healthcare. I am determined to take all of this back to GSK as I believe my insights can only help the company deliver to patients.

Blog 3 – September 2016

I have now completed almost two thirds of my PULSE assignment. The time is flying by and I have been learning so much.

One of the objectives of my assignment was to develop end-to-end disease management modules and conduct medical training sessions for the mobile medical clinic (MMC) teams. I have now completed the disease management module for diabetes mellitus. This module involved a number of activities including:

  • Understanding the patient journey within the MMC
  • Redefining roles of each person working at the MMC in diabetes management
  • Identifying the medications that are required for optimal management of diabetes mellitus
  • Developing patient educations tools

An important element was to develop sustainable tie-ups for referrals and diagnostic facilities. For this, I identified and visited multiple charitable hospitals, diagnostic centres and specialty eye care centres, along with my colleagues. It was encouraging to see so many centres providing quality healthcare facilities to the patients especially from underprivileged sections of the society. Going forward, a tie up with these centres will be of benefit to all stakeholders.

Initial rounds of discussions have been conducted with these centres. So far, the response has been positive. We expect these tie-ups to be confirmed soon and this will allow MMC patients to access these facilities and benefit from health consultations from diabetologists, ophthalmologists and psychiatrists (to name a few). External experts have also agreed to conduct training sessions for AmeriCares healthcare teams for the more specialist topics. A session on “Diabetic Foot in Primary Care”, for example, has been scheduled during this week.

Another big focus on mine is to consider how AmeriCares can move towards ensuring uninterrupted supply of medicines for all the diseases managed at MMCs.  I believe a well defined medicine procurement plan is vital to this and I have been developing a plan. It includes the creation of an essential medicines list for MMCs, a feedback process to accurately predict medicine quantities to be procured and a tool to ensure warehouses maintain stock. Medicine procurement has been initiated using this plan. With full implementation of this procurement plan, a regular and uninterrupted supply of medicines is expected.

Having better knowledge of the medicines available at MMCs will be useful in optimum utilisation of the medicines. An innovative way to inform the healthcare teams about the available medicines is a medicine list with pack-shots and important prescribing information such as indications, dosage schedule, and important safety information. This has been prepared with the help of AmeriCares headquarters team and will be distributed to teams in next few days.

In my last blog, I spoke about an asthma screening programme.  This scheme has progressed towards the implementation phase and its launch is expected to happen at few of the centres soon. With the objective of diagnosing and providing treatment for asthma and other respiratory ailments in underprivileged children from slum localities in 5 cities across India, it strives to reach to those who are generally away from even the basic healthcare facilities. Identified asthmatics among these underprivileged children will get appropriate medicines, health education and counselling for their condition.

Moving into the final phase of the assignment, it’s time to reflect on the tasks completed and things I need to do in order to bring meaningful change in lives of some of my fellow countrymen/women. 

Blog 2 - August, 2016

Mumbai is a megacity with its unique charm, speed and busy but helpful people. It is said to be India’s economic capital and is home to some of richest in the world.  On the other hand Asia’s largest slum ‘Dharavi’ is in Mumbai. I have been living in Mumbai for the last eight years and encounter the slums on a daily basis. However, until the last few days, I had seen these slums from a distance and didn’t know what the reality was within.

Having been on my assignment for a few weeks now, I have been warmly welcomed by colleagues at AmeriCares India Foundation (AIF).  I have been working at Mobile Medical clinics (MMCs), looking at the electronic data from these clinics and I have also visited the slums of Mumbai for whom these MMCs are critical.  

To say life is difficult in the slums would be an understatement. The residents face immense difficulties; lack of education, extreme overcrowding, lack of hygiene to name a few and this was a humbling experience. As one would expect, communicable diseases such as diarrhea, respiratory and skin infections, malaria, dengue, tuberculosis are rampant. Non-communicable diseases such diabetes mellitus, hypertension and COPD are also on the rise as a result of urban living, pollution, stress and a change in eating habits, among other factors.

AmeriCares' MMCs are doing a great job. They reach these underprivileged people in Mumbai and provide medical consultation, medicines and health education. This is made all the more impressive when I consider the numerous challenges they face such as resources and infrastructure. My role is to devise pragmatic solutions to address some of the challenges and help AmeriCares to take the health care facilities to the next level.

Pitching ideas to AIF management

I’m only a few weeks in but I recently proposed systematic improvement initiatives to AIF management. This was based on my review of electronic data and speaking to physicians and patients. Some of my recommendations include taking a targeted approach to specific diseases, developing formulary and ensuring continuous medicine supply, developing referral networks with other non-profit organisations, government hospitals, private laboratories and practitioners. All of the initiatives were well received and were forwarded to AmeriCares’ Headquarters in Connecticut, USA, who were equally positive on them, which was great to hear.

Implementation of these initiatives has already started. Medical education sessions for the healthcare staff is underway. Given the number of topics to be covered, AmeriCares’ headquarters will support the delivery of the training programmes. One example of a simple suggestion which was implemented is having white board at MMC vans displaying the date of next clinic.

To give you an idea of the work AIF is doing, let me also share another project that I have been involved in. It is an asthma screening programme for underprivileged children in five cities across India. Many asthma patients in India are not diagnosed or are undertreated and this initiative aims to address these issues.

At GSK, I handle the respiratory portfolio so I have been able to lend my expertise to this project. As a subject expert, I helped design this programme and I conducted training sessions on asthma and lung function studies. I also visited the healthcare facilities of AIF’s partners where the programme will be conducted: in Cochin (Kerala) and Bangalore (Karnataka). It was a great experience to be part of this programme.

As you can probably tell, it has been an action packed first month at AmeriCares and I hope to continue working in same way during the next two months to achieve my objectives for my PULSE assignment.

Blog 1 - July 2016

“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” - John F Kennedy, 1961.

I’ve always had a desire to do more for India, my country.  Before joining GSK in 2012, I’d only managed to contribute via volunteering or financial donations now and then.  Having been with the company for over 4 years, I’ve had the opportunity to do more but my upcoming PULSE assignment is the ultimate achievement in this respect.  Having learned about the programme from a poster in the Worli office, I did my research into the scheme and I can say it didn’t take me too long to decide to apply – It was only after I applied and was selected that I realised how powerful the PULSE programme within the business.  In fact, I’ve had many colleagues congratulating me and saying that they will seriously consider applying next year!

I’ll be working in Mumbai with a not-for-profit called AmeriCares India Foundation for three months and I am super-excited! AmeriCares India Foundation is a public charitable trust which provides medical aid in India and in neighboring countries during disasters and operates mobile medical clinics in urban slums. The mobile medical clinics (MMCs) provide free medical consultation and free quality medicines and raise awareness about disease prevention, conduct health promotion programs, educate children on importance of proper hygiene techniques.

My role on assignment will be to identify target diseases per the needs of the local community, develop treatment algorithms for the identified target diseases, conduct training sessions for AmeriCares’ healthcare providers and suggest process improvements for MMCs. I hope that through my experience and contributions on PULSE, locals will be able to do more, feel better and live longer (does this phrase sound familiar?!).

I’m really excited to blog about my experiences for GSK’s website and I hope you find them interesting. I can’t wait to get started so that I can share what I am doing with you in my next post!  

Monique works in Australia as a sales trainer.
Monique George

Hello, I’m Monique and I work in Australia as a sales trainer.  I’m going to be spending the next six months on a PULSE assignment with Leonard Cheshire Disability International and will be based in its Zambia office, supporting its regional priorities.

Blog 7 - January 2017

The challenge my mentor gave me when stepping into this wonderful adventure was to explore my thoughts and feelings openly, and use this blog to help open up emotionally as I can be a little guarded. Six months have passed I have realised how much I have enjoyed blogging - much more than I thought I would.

For this blog, I wanted to share my thoughts on the greatest Christmas gift I’ve ever received. Perspective.

Thanks to the kindness and generosity of my friends and colleagues at Leonard Cheshire, I had the absolute privilege of delivering over 140 Christmas presents to children.

Pulling on some help from the great friends I have made here in Lusaka, we had an Elf workshop wrapping party to put the final touch on the Christmas presents. As we had experts from supply chain and analysts, there were wrapping templates, constant process improvement from feedback and of course a competition to see who could wrap the quickest and to the best quality.

What happened next was getting to take the presents to the Cheshire Homes Orphanage, Kasisi Orphanage and Twatacha Community School to deliver the gifts. To witness the delight on the facts of these children receiving a wrapped present was so humbling. What hit home hard was that the kids needed to be shown they had to unwrap the packaging to get the actual gift.  I managed to capture the experience throough photos, which you can take a look at in this video montage.

Like I said, perspective, and also one of the greatest experiences of my life.

I just wanted to say a huge thank you to everyone who helped pull this off.  As I said, I was just the lucky one who got to be at the end of line to deliver the joy that really was the result of everybody’s hard work.

PULSE lesson #7: It’s not what you get, it’s what you give. 

Blog 6 – December 2016

“What would you do if I sang out of tune, would you stand up and walk out on me? Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song, and I’ll try not to sing out of key”

The opening lines of this blog may seem like I am drawing a long bow, and I may well be doing that. But this spoke to me and seemed apt for how I feel about everything that has been achieved in the last week.

It goes without saying that The Beatles are genius, and have written so many songs that truly capture a huge variety of life’s experiences, so I should not have been surprised that I found counsel in this tune, but I was all the same.

One of my major projects in working for Cheshire Homes in the Southern African region under the global alliance was to get the region to build a council and work together to be more efficient and effective in making a difference to the quality of life of persons with disability.

I can hear my Dad saying “Yes, but what does that actually mean?”,  and simply put it is getting Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Mauritius to work together, share challenges, plan strategically and be a combined force. One unified voice is more powerful than scattered different messages.

I have a great mentor who has showed me the value in pushing past this barrier and so it was with a little embarrassment and fear that I sent out a request to my friends and family to help financially support the strategic meeting in the Southern African Region.

I was staggered, in terms of the level of response, the speed of donation and the amount given. Friends and family, you know who you are; you are incredibly generous and I am so very humbled by your donations. “Thank you” feels like such a feeble word to signify how much your action means to me.

None of what I have achieved with the regional meeting would be possible without the support I received. And by that I mean not just the financial donation, but the emotional support and the time donated in chats and check ins/welfare checks about how I am going.

This trilogy of support left me incredibly motivated to make your donations valued and the meeting a greater success than current expectations planned for.

“What would you do if I sang out of tune, would you stand up and walk out on me?”
This line clearly captures my fear that I will fail the support that has been given to me and the cause here on two fronts. One is that I will fail to deliver the value your efforts deserve and two is that I will not tell the story well enough for you to want to listen. I have such high standards, and the help being given here means so much that the stakes feel so high if you fall short a group of people in need will be let down. The lives of people with a disability need to have some attention, need to have their quality of life improved.

“Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song, and I’ll try not to sing out of key”
So this is where I get to tell you what happened. We had attendees from South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe and the United Kingdom. We had a few changes at the last minute, and unfortunately we had Botswana pull out due to a health concern.

One of the most exciting parts, and by far the biggest impact the meeting had, was by having the Minister for Community Development, The Honourable Emerine Kabanshi MP attend. This gave us the incredible opportunity to influence policy and awareness of the marginalised disabled community.

This is a real need for social change towards a person with disability in developing countries.  Accessible employment opportunities are limited due to the stigma attached to disability, as well as workplaces not being physically accessible to a person with disabilities.  So having the ear of the government and have them be a passionate voice for the cause is a big win.

The meeting helped build an alliance for the Southern African Region and the council has seen the benefit of the work done so much so the first action is to fund my position moving forward to continue with the great work that has been achieved. A massive win as it is big step towards sustainability of the work done to date while I have been on assignment.

Pulse Lesson #6: You get by with a little help from your friends. 
Pulse Lesson #6b: The Beatles have a song for every occasion.

Blog 5 – November 2016

We had a great day in Zambia at Leonard Cheshire a couple of weeks ago, which I’d like to share with you. The day was a hot one, and not for the first time I marvelled at the Zambians’ resilience and poise as we waited in the scorching sun for proceedings to start. We had some guests of honour late to the event, which gave me precious time to play with the kids and meet the families of those we were helping out.

The purpose of the day was for Leonard Cheshire Disability International to deliver a tangible and critical part of one of the projects we have been working on. Five families had been identified as needing wheelchairs; some had nothing prior to this and others desperately needed an upgrade to a worn and defunct chair they currently had. We had organised the chairs and today was about gifting them to the families in need. 

I had the chance to meet Fred and his mum Catherine. Fred is a beautiful nine year little boy, whose life so far has been carefully strapped to the back of his mother, with a Chitenge (Sarong). He is unable to sit unassisted due to his disability and the impact on Fred is that his physical development and independence is limited because they have had nothing to help support him other than the body of his mother.

The mother Catherine, after nine years of carrying a growing boy on her back, stoically answers it is ok. On pressing her about how she feels, she finally admitted that it is physically straining, and that it did reduce her freedom to be mobile and get out and about.

In observing Catherine moving about with Fred, even sitting in a chair looked difficult, as there was no easy way to have Fred situated comfortably and Catherine being comfortable at the same. In fact Catherine found the concrete floor the easiest place to sit and position her son as this enabled them both to have enough space. But it certainly was no reasonable solution, especially when you are talking about being sat for 2-3 hour periods.

On receiving the wheelchair Catherine commented that this welcomed addition to their lives would change how they both got out and about.  Most importantly, this change will make it easier for Catherine to take Fred on the long journey from home to the Twatacha Community School. For Catherine, this means the doors of time will open, she’ll reserve energy that she would have otherwise spent carrying Fred. She now has choices.

This day gave me such a rewarding feeling about the hard work we have been doing, and seeing it really touch the lives of people who needed it. As Catherine set off, wheeling Fred in his new ride, her shoulders seemed to drop and a smile crept across her face. The trip home today was going to be so vastly different from the trip in for Catherine and Fred.

It also gave me a gift that I wasn’t expecting. I was missing my family, so I called home later that week and did the rounds with my nephews and niece. My 10 year-old nephew has shown a real interest in the community work I have been getting to do here, and in previous calls he had asked what have I am working on. This week, however, he had a gift for me, as he was excited to tell me about some community work he had been doing at his school. He commented that the things he liked the most about the work they were getting to do was that everybody was involved in helping and making a difference. I heard pride and content in his voice as he talked me through it all.

You may have noted from reading previous blogs will have noted I am huge fan of quotes and one of my absolute favourites is by a Nobel Prize winner we so sadly lost earlier this year, Elie Wiesel;

“Indifference, to me, is the epitome of evil.”

This resonates with me so deeply, in reference to so many aspects of life. I have been determined for indifference to be the antithesis of everything I do. Granted, Elie was talking about the atrocities of war, but I have taken it as message on how we should be; Full of passion, opinion, care and champion of a cause.

My dad has often proclaimed to me the sentiment that ‘if you can make a difference, you should’. I believe that this concept is carved deep in the very fibre of my being. Getting to see it materialise in the next generation was heart warming beyond belief.

After speaking to my nephew, it made me feel happy and relieved that the world will be in the hands of more people like this, willing and wanting to make a difference.

Pulse Lesson #5: If you can make a difference, you should.


Blog 4 – September 2016

I want to share a story of an encounter I had with an amazing individual I had the privilege of meeting when conducting the audio assessment day at Kasenje Primary School.

Rose was a little nine year old girl who was visually impaired and quite clearly shaken by the noise of the audio assessment. She caught my eye as her hands were frantically stroking her carefully made little denim dress. 

I had a think of what I could do to help calm her mind. I blew up a little blue balloon, to match her dress and for her to hold, in hope of calming her mind. I asked her teacher to introduce me and gave her the balloon. I dearly regret not having a camera at hand to take a photo of her face as she took the balloon in hand. It was a thing of beauty to watch curiosity and adventurous exploration take a hold of every muscle of her face. The balloon served its purpose and Rose was suitably calmer and smiling.

As a side bar, I have learned it is frustrating to not have camera ready and I know I am not getting nearly enough photos of me in them as I try to record this amazing adventure. But I read an article recently on ten tips for photography, and the sixth tip was to learn to put the camera down and be present. This was one of those moments.

As the hearing assessment began, you could see Rose was clearly uncomfortable with what was happening, but you could see her gritted determination to just get through it. My respect for her grew immediately.

Rose then underwent a procedure for her ears as she’d developed an infection. The audiologist was as gentle as he could be, but Rose reached her tipping point. 

I think what I was bracing for was that typical child tantrum of communication through noise and tears. What happened next made my respect for this little girl grow exponentially, again! Rose calmly placed her hand on the Audiologists arm, not letting go of the balloon she was so fond of, and simply said “that is all thank you”. 

How I wish with all my heart that she could have seen my face in return. It was a smile full of complete admiration for this poised little girl, who was setting a high benchmark on how to deal with distress.

The audiologist and I decided to change the scenery for Rose and took her hand and guided her to a much quieter place where we could talk to her about her medication and what needed to happen for her ears to get better. Rose proved to be a serious negotiator and we got backed into a corner! The deal that if she told us a poem, and remembered our names (this is over an hour after we were introduced in a noisy environment, to a nine year-old with little to no vision) that she could take the medication home and have her mum administer it. 

A poem by Rose for Leonard Cheshire Disability and GSK

Rose recited a poem for GSK and Leonard Cheshire.

She didn't skip a beat and perfectly pronounced both of our names, touching each of our hands as she said them. Rose then opened up to a long and beautiful poem about the disabled being mistreated and the need for society to change. She then went off to play with her friends, and it was of no surprise that she was the centre of the circle holding court with her peers.

It has been a week since I met Rose, and she is emblazoned on my mind and in my heart. I will steal the words of Mwasonie, the audiologist, who sent me through the video today, and said: “Every time I watch and listen to this video, I am touched and it has given me more energy to work hard in reaching out to under privileged children.”

Pulse Lesson # 4: From little things big things grow

Blog 3 – August 2016

It has been an interesting couple of weeks in Zambia. We have faced the election of a new president. On the day they announced the winner, it happened earlier than had been expected. So as it happening I was across town in a meeting with the Ministry for Education. I was urged by the team with a sense of haste to quickly return to home. On the drive back I could see why; thousands of people were streaming onto the streets, dressed in the political party colours, celebrating.

I have a question I have asked local Zambian’s on meeting them: “What is your favourite thing about your country?” I must say I was surprised at the consistency in everyone’s answer - “It’s peaceful”. This crossed my mind as I watched the mass of people gathering and the pure energy and passion being displayed.

In my last blog, I was (and still very much am) fuelled with passion for the cause we are fighting for. Having met the children with disabilities and heard their stories, seen where they live and what they needed I was revved up and ready to get cracking on how to help.

And herein lies the paradox of Zambia, and indeed probably most developing countries. One of the most beautiful things about the Zambian way of life is the simplicity and the pace. And as I learnt when you want so badly to get something done, the most frustrating things about the Zambian way of life are the simplicity and the pace.

After conducting a very successful project review meeting, it was evident to the team that we had some great opportunities to work on. Most excitingly we left the project review meeting with something I could really sink my teeth into. On our field visits in previous weeks we had identified the need for materials - both education and medical - in the Kafue district. When reviewing the project plan, we prioritised funding and resources to get this sorted out. It was feeling like we were moving from treading water in the problem zone to powering through into solutions.

I walked into the office of a department whose sole job was to provide education materials to the special needs filled with hope about what this meeting could procure. At first I couldn’t believe my eyes. Mountains of materials for the visually impaired, including Braille boards to learn the alphabet. What became apparent very quickly was there was little to no interest in expediting the distribution of these materials to the kids at the schools we were working with. When you see the need for it NOW, it didn’t leave a particularly good taste in my mouth. The internal voice of “you are failing the kids” pulsed loudly through my brain. So I left the meeting and mapped out a good plan to engage this particular gentleman, not one to give up. But the slowness of it was screaming at me. When there is so much time to reflect here, I will not lie to you, and say my mind wondered to the negative. I wasn’t doing a good enough job, I wasn’t making enough of a difference…I was failing these beautiful kids who needs so little to have such a difference made.

After coping a few hits, and things feeling like a slug would beat us to the finish line, my colleague and I walk into a meeting to procure some quotes for hearing aids for 22 children we had identified. The hurt and pain in my brain needing things to happen dissolved away when we met Alfred, executive director of a Non for Profit organisation Starkey. His goal is to train other audiologists in Zambia and to do this he tries to focus on hearing assessments and fitting aids to those in need. This becomes his teaching environment. In his own words “everyone benefits”. After a short exchange, he said those magic words: “Let me tell you what I can do for you.”

15 minutes later, my colleague David and I are planning for Alfred’s medical team to do a site visit at our largest school in Kafue and doing hearing assessments on the whole school, providing the health care on the spot, and fitting any aids required with a follow up visit for a check up planned in December for the students Alfred is teaching as their graduation day. I like Alfred. I like Alfred a lot.

The next weeks are now filled with clarity and purpose, and a sense of optimism that feels good. The demons of failure are far behind me now. A spring in my step and everything in my head says this is how it should be. Finding the connections and unlocking the potential to make a difference. This is where I know I can make a difference. Now it is just logistics and planning and engaging the right people to pull this off. The best part of it all, knowing the difference made is going straight to the kids I met weeks ago. If my heart broke a little when I first surveyed the area when I first arrived, it is soaring with possibilities this week.

It took the right question to the right person; “tell us what you do?” Then it was a matter of applying that all important skill of listening. The jackpot moment.

Pulse lesson #3: Which approach is better: faster or slower? Doing the right thing requires a calculated balance between speed and restraint. The answer, I think, should be both.

The light bulb moment I have had in the days since writing this blog and getting ready to post, is that it is not the pace that gets you down, but when you encounter apathy. Apathy towards wanting to get an outcome, wanting to fix the obvious problem with the obvious and what should be an easy solution. I am truly looking forward to the next updates, as we fight not only apathy but towards changing the lives of the kids at the school.

Blog 2 – August 2016

I’m a few weeks into my PULSE assignment now and not only am I winning my daily battle with the hot water system and getting accustomed to the temperamental nature of power supply where I am staying, I am also starting to really see first-hand the challenges that Leonard Cheshire Disability (LCD) is addressing. Last week, I went on a field trip with my colleagues to see how a project in the District of Kafue was progressing. 

In a nutshell, the deliverable of the Kafue Project is to target 12 schools in the Kafue district in Zambia and create access to education for 180 Children with Disabilities (CWD).  Our field visit was to assess where the schools’ progress was at and what else the project could be doing. We also met the Minister of Education to better understand the governments’ approach in the region and share the work of the project to date.

The project itself has more than delivered on the numbers that it set out to, with currently over 240 children having access to education and the benefit of resources being provided. As I reflect on what I experienced, three things stand out for me.

1. The children missing out

Every single person we spoke to, whether it was teachers or the Ministry for Education, commented that they had more than one story of a child with a disability not receiving education or health assessments as they were just kept at home, often in isolation. Hearing this was extremely sobering. All I could think was ‘here we are, looking at schools with trained teachers and relatively generous resources, but when I drive away, I will see houses with people that we could be making a difference to right now’.

From conversations I’ve had with my LCD colleagues it seems there is a stigma or burden in having a child with a disability and the biggest hurdle is getting parents to bring their children from isolation, out of their home, and into a school with resources and support for development.  

2. A positive difference is being made, but is it enough?

At one of the government schools, which had the “luxuries” I set out in point 1, we talked to the principal about what more needs to be done.  She went on to tell us that one of the younger students in a wheelchair had almost badly injured themselves on a ramp that had disintegrated, trapping the chair wheel and resulted in the child falling out, fortunately not resulting in an injury. The teachers then dedicated their weekend to come in and repair the ramp.

While it was humbling to see teachers going the extra mile for their students, the one constant when visiting various schools was the answer ‘no’.

  • Were toilet blocks wide enough for wheelchairs? No
  • Was one Braille set sufficient for a school? No
  • Was the wheelchair really fit for purpose for the Kafue terrain for that child going to and from school? No
  • Was one poster for sign language enough for a school with 6 hearing impaired children of varying ages and different learning needs? No

It has been hard to balance my thoughts. This project has made amazing headway in a region so greatly needing it.  But it is a small step forward.  What I am swiftly learning is that the challenge for an NGO is answering the question how are we going to resource taking this next step forward.

3. The difference can be made

There is a saying, ‘when eating an elephant, you have to start somewhere and it is one bite at a time’.   It is really starting to ring true for me now. There is so much to tackle, you don’t know where to start, or if you will make a difference.  The hardest thing that I have encountered so far is trying to compute this challenge.  As someone who is used to functioning on limited sleep, I am used to the hours of early morning being a peaceful and restful time. In the nights since returning from the field visit, I have become increasingly restless; my head swirling with questions around how I  make enough of “the right” difference and whether it will ever be enough.

And then I remember seeing the teachers who exemplify the very impact access to inclusive education can have; the community school that has a non-verbal teacher; the student who has graduated with a diploma and witnessing the pride on the faces of her teachers. These examples demonstrate that making a difference one little piece at a time makes an enormous difference to the person whose life it changed.  And that’s lesson number two from my PULSE assignment.

Blog 1 - July 2016

As I sit and type this blog, I still cannot fathom the journey that is ahead of me. I have been lucky enough to be selected as a PULSE Volunteer for Leonard Cheshire Disability International (LCD), and will be based in the Zambia office in Lusaka.

What I love is how connected people feel to the assignment at this early stage. Colleagues coming up sporadically and mentioning if they had lived in Zambia, travelled there, a connection to LCD and general excitement shared about what I am getting to do. 

I am by nature a stoic person; generally I take things in my stride. An avid fan of adventure, friends and family would cohesively say that I can happily throw caution to the wind. So as the departure date nears (ONLY 2 sleeps now!) I have encountered many a question about being nervous about the next six months, and leaving family and friends behind, a new country, on my own.

I thought I knew my answer to being asked about PULSE. I knew why I was doing it, what it meant to me and what I also expected to get out of it. I had been looking to apply for this for years! So it is discombobulating for me to write how I have already been surprised by what I have learnt from this…and I haven’t even left yet.

Now this is not a reflection of how much I will miss the people I hold dear, as that is inevitable, but the answer to that very question is that I have only been feeling excitement and calmness in relation to what amazing journey lies ahead.

There are few times in life where you truly feel you are in the right place, and the right time doing exactly what you were put on this earth for. And I feel that now. GSK has given me an amazing opportunity to donate my time and skill in order to make a difference in a developing country with LCD. It honestly doesn’t get any cooler than that.

PULSE is all about being the change, and I have been prepared since applying all those months ago that I would be on a journey of self discovery.

But it is the people here at home, and their reaction to me leaving that has taken me off guard. I have been confronted by the honesty in their kind words about what sort of person they see me as. A close friend commented that it is very rare in life that you get that kind of raw feeling from so many people at once. It is fair to say that part of being a stoic person means I haven’t been one to show an immense amount of emotion. I was sure that by embarking on such a phenomenal experience through a developing country working on a project that tangibly changed the lives of the disabled was going to change that. What I was wrong about, was that the people at home have had a massive impact on that already.

I am proud to say I allowed myself to feel and react. This may not sound like much to some, but a massive change for me. It is strange to be aware of the feeling of emotion coming over you and a wanting to hug people, when it isn’t who I have been. But this is what has happened. And I think I enjoyed it.

I have learnt that when people hug you with feeling, a bit of their personality comes through. They give you a piece of them to take with you.

Like those with a gentle rock – are the softer souls who give and need to be given to.

A sudden “weight lifter type” bear hug – they are certain of their ability to provide comfort and anchoring in your life.

And the hug which when finished still has a hand resting on your shoulder – a clear sign that they need you to know they are with you by your side even when they aren’t.

My first lesson from PULSE? Open your heart, mind and hugs to those that care and it is pretty amazing.

As Foreigner once belted out in a classic power ballad “through the clouds I have seen love shine” – Thank you PULSE for letting me experience this.

Lucas Sakalem
Lucas Sakalem

I’m Lucas Sakalem and I currently work within the PULSE team in GSK. After 3 years helping to coordinate the programme on a global level, I will be going on a PULSE assignment myself and have been matched to the Humanitarian Leadership Academy, sponsored by Save the Children. I will be based out of the newly established Philippines Academy Centre and my assignment will be to support the Centre’s Director with the set-up and management of key projects. 

February 2017

It’s here – I have reached my last week in the Philippines. I can’t believe it was only six months ago that I arrived in Manila. It feels almost like a century ago. Time can be funny sometimes, eh?

When I submitted my PULSE application, I wrote that, among other reasons, I wanted to do this to 1) help other people, 2) learn from new challenges, 3) develop leadership skills and 4) venture into the “outside world” that exists beyond GSK walls. I can’t say I accomplished them all, and at times I get this uncomfortable itch when I say that out loud, but then I remind myself that the ones that I did achieve were super rewarding.

I didn’t get to help as many people as I thought I would, but I’m super grateful to have had the chance to share something I know and learn something from. I didn’t save the world, but I explored it to the fullest. I got 2 diving certifications and saw sharks, I travelled to Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, and to many tiny islands in the Philippines. I didn’t become a better leader, but I became a better person. Or at least one that is able to recognise my virtues and flaws and try harder to grow from there.

There are plenty of things to tell and share about my adventures on this side of the globe, but I will single out the most important one - the people. No matter where we go, people are people, and yes, we are all the same. Be it in a suburbia town in Rio de Janeiro, in a metropole like Philadelphia, London, or New York, or in the (beautiful) chaos surrounding Manila and its busy highways. The friends and people I met here will stay in my life book forever. Last week, I was at a bar with a few of them and, for a moment, I stopped dancing and just looked around – 2 months ago I didn’t really know any of these folks, and yet there we were, sharing something beautiful, laughing like we’ve known each other since childhood. It’s funny how bonds can spark so bright – almost magical!

And Philippines, you will always be a beautiful island to me. One that became my short-term home quite unexpectedly. One where I got to be a child again and just start a temporary life from tabula rasa, a blank page, and scratch my best self from there. One where I did something that can help save kids caught in the middle of humanitarian crisis and natural disasters – even if on a small scale. One that will remain intact in my memories – an ageless, eternal land full of joy. My very own Neverland.

January 2017

After five months working as a GSK PULSE volunteer in the Philippines, I decided to take a break over the holidays to visit Japan, the country where many beloved characters from my childhood were born. Over three weeks, I went from Tokyo to Osaka, from Osaka to Hiroshima, from Hiroshima to Kyoto, and finally back to Tokyo – besides many other small towns in the middle. No, I did not bump into Mario Bros or Princess Zelda or Pikachu during my trip. I did, though, visit around 30 different temples, and let myself immerse into the country’s respect for the old, for traditions, and learn from their beliefs and ideals.

To me, a non-religious person, a temple is this figurative space where I can visit to just sit down, close my eyes, feel nature around me and (excuse me for the neologism) to notbe. The act of notbeing is when you tone down all those feelings that make you anxious, nervous, sad or happy – in a positive or negative way –, and just reflect about something from objective lens. As a person who is always bursting with emotions (I know, I’m so Brazilian), I need that safe spot, and it’s sometimes hard to find the right place and time to open its doors. In Japan, however, this was no tough task.

I spent Christmas Eve at Koya-san, a sacred mountain where you can enjoy a monk’s lifestyle by sleeping in a temple lodge, bathing in one of the local onsens (the Japanese hot springs), and attend their morning prayer at six in the morning. It was a time for isolation, where I was far away from family and friends, surrounded by incredible Pagodas, the forest, and the cold winds of winter.

One of the attractions of the mountain is a very old cemetery where important figures of Japan’s past are buried. It’s a huge graveyard, and you can spend hours and hours just walking around and looking at the beautiful, morbid statues, and gravestones. Late afternoon, I went into the graveyard with no map and ended up finding a hidden path in the midst of the gravestones, crossing a river through a small, wooded bridge, only to emerge into a huge clearing circled by tall, ancient trees. It was a fantastic surprise, and I just sat there, mesmerised by nature itself, and made it my own temple – my safe spot to notbe for a while.

As I closed my eyes, I thought about change – about how much change this whole PULSE endeavor has brought. We all know that change isn’t easy, regardless of how prepared you are. I certainly know how difficult it was to transition from my city life and well-established job to land in a secluded village in the suburbs of the Philippines and work at a start-up organisation, where nothing is very clear and you have to navigate through unknown tides to figure things out. Quite often, I felt frustrated for having to live away from a big city, lost in the middle of nowhere, whereas all the friends I made were enjoying life in the capital of Manila. During that moment in Japan, though, on top of that hill, I allowed myself to read my experience through different eyes.

Before coming to Asia, I pictured my assignment as a time to enjoy life with renovated freedom, explore a new world, learn from the new and help others through the little support I could offer. The truth is not everything is heaven. Most of the time in Tagaytay, I missed home and my old job, and I soon started counting down the weeks to finally return to Philadelphia. A month ago, as I repeatedly complained about how bored and dissatisfied I was with Tagaytay, someone told me: “You know, as silly as it sounds, I do believe that things happen for a reason. You could’ve gone to the liveliest Asian capital, and yet this is where you are. Think about how this experience has put you over the edge, how it challenged your resilience. Home will always be there for you, but these six months will never ever come back. Take them by the horns and make the most out of it.”

I thought about all of that as a chilly breeze passed through the trees and moved the grass beneath my feet. I could hear nature going to bed, the sun setting in the distance, and the darkness of a bright winter night approaching from the West. And suddenly I allowed myself to smile – I gave myself permission to accept that yes, this was not what I expected, but I did learn from it. I internally thanked the mysterious strings of destiny for putting me through such an interesting path on my PULSE experience. I now know better about my limitations and what I can or cannot do on a long-term basis. It could’ve been an easy transition, but it wasn’t, and, at that moment, I finally made peace with how things turned out.

I don’t know whether I will ever come back to Japan – life is too short and there are too many other places to see –, but I’m so glad I went there. I’m glad I gave myself a chance to “spirit away”, to find my own temple, to dive into the state of notbeing, and to accept how emotionally difficult, but yet beautifully transforming, the last few months have been. There are only a few weeks left in Asia and a big change happened as I came back to the Philippines. I’m now working from Manila, the capital, at the headquarters of Save the Children Philippines, leading a new project for the remaining weeks I have on PULSE. I will talk more about this in my next blog.

November 2016

Not everything in the Philippines is about beautiful beaches, singing to karaoke, or breathtaking diving sites. About 3 years ago, this country faced the fury of two heavily damaging disasters: a 7.2 earthquake and Typhoon Hayan. I've been here for almost 3 months now, working with the Humanitarian Leadership Academy to help local communities better prepare for and respond to disasters. As part of my assignment, I went on a field trip to the paradisiac island of Bantayan, that was completely devastated by the typhoon.

During this trip, I visited five humanitarian projects around the island. I got to hear many, many stories – stories from people who lost everything after the typhoon, fisherfolk who couldn’t fish for weeks due to the strong and continuous rain, farmers who saw their crops and roofs go with the wind. Three years later, people are still recovering. Together, within their own communities, and through the aid of humanitarian organisations such as Lutheran World Relief, Caritas Foundation, and Islamic Relief Foundation, their lives are getting better.

One of the communities I visited was Sungko, a fishing village in Bantayan. When Hayan came, the fisherfolks could not go into the sea anymore, and therefore had no more source of income. They lost their houses and spent days without food, until relief arrived. A few months after the typhoon, the men went back to the sea, and the women in the community were granted with a typhoon-proof fish-drying facility, powered by solar energy instead of electricity, so that they can cut, dry and package fish without the risk of stopping their business during another disaster. Moreover, humanitarians and volunteers walked them through micro-financing and management techniques, enabling and empowering them to run their own shop.

Encarnation Umbao, or Encarn (her nickname), the leader of the group of women who run the facility, used to be a shy lady who didn’t talk much and barely knew anything about numbers. Now, she feels super comfortable in front of the camera, takes care of the finances of the business, and mastered the art of negotiating prices with the markets and traders when selling her products. “I’m actually happier after Typhoon Hayan,” she told me, “When it hit us, we asked ourselves – ‘why did this happen it to us? We were already poor, and now we are even poorer.' But now I see that the tragedy brought us together. It opened our eyes and minds to the importance of being a community and how, together, we can help each other.”

Encarn told me her story with a big smile on her face, even when reliving the days after the tragedy. She showed me her house, a few steps away from the dried-fish facility, and the other products that they’re now producing to diversify the community’s business – selling dried sea cucumber, crab meat, and fried fish spine.

I will never forget the stories I heard in Bantayan, or the beautiful, crystalline sea that surrounds the island. It was great to see from up close the real value of humanitarian work; but most importantly, as cliché as it sounds, I realised how small my problems really are. The world is sinking into political despair, and yet people are still living, going from crisis to crisis, sometimes struggling, but, most of all, surviving. It's not the end of the world. People like Encarn are the proof that there is still hope. We can always rebuild from scratch, just like they did, and be happy again.

Video blog – September 2016

In this video blog, Lucas talks about his first month of his assignment; how he’s adjusting to a new country and also what he’s learned from his talented colleagues so far while in “listening mode”.

Blog 1 - July 2016

A couple of months ago, my colleagues and I travelled to the UK for a two-week meeting and went out to explore London over the weekend. We bumped into a vintage hat shop and were approached by the seller who, after noticing our foreign accents, asked what we were doing in London. “We’re here for work,” I said. “Ah, what do you for a living?”, he asked. Before I could answer, my boss jumped in with a very spontaneous joke – “we make dreams come true!” We all laughed, and the very confused guy had no idea of what we were talking about. Jokes aside, there is a lot of truth to that statement.

Here’s the thing: I work in the PULSE Volunteer Partnership team. PULSE is a program that allows GSK employees to leave their jobs for three to six months to work full time with NGOs from many parts of the world. Since its inception, PULSE has empowered more than 600 employees to work with more than 60 NGOs around the world.

Look at those numbers for a few seconds and think about what inspired each one of those 600+ employees to take this leap of faith, leave their comfort zone and dive into the unknown. Imagine, also, how many people they touched and impacted through their journeys, and how many lives they changed for the better! This is not just a leadership development programme.  It’s a life-changing machine. A machine that, after a long time waiting, I will be able to conduct myself. In August 2016, I will leave GSK to join the Humanitarian Leadership Academy Centre (HLA) in the Philippines. Sponsored by Save the Children, the HLA is an organisation that works at enhancing natural disaster preparedness in different parts of the world.

I can’t wait to start my project; the process of getting ready for it, though, has been a little bit weird. Picture this: I’m part of the team that coordinates the programme AND a participant at the same time. I hope that, by the end of this process (in which I’ve delivered and attended the same training sessions), I don’t go mad by switching hats all the time!

I’m also having to face the infinite questioning from my family (especially my mother, as I’m an only child) as they keep asking me if I am crazy for, once again, traveling further away from home (I moved to Philadelphia from Brazil three years ago). I mean, it is a little crazy, but good crazy. I will be helping people, living a dream, and, why not, changing the world.

So, as I came into the office today, I couldn’t be more certain that I had made the right choice. This is the right time to do this, and life’s too short to just sit and wait. Until August comes, I will keep on wearing double hats (coordinator and participant) and counting down the days I have left in Philadelphia. And if I ever question myself about this adventure, I will go back to a quote that stuck with me from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”:

“Have I gone mad?”, the Mad Hatter asked.

“I’m afraid so,” Alice answered, “You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret: all the best people are.”

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