Charities: Caring for the community: Joanna Gibbon meets Alec and Mora Dickson, founders of Voluntary Service Overseas

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The Independent Culture
IN celebrating his 80th birthday on 23 May, Alec Dickson, founder of two British charities - Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) and Community Service Volunteers (CSV) - demonstrates, even when unwell, some of the vitality that has driven him for decades.

While resting in his hospital bed, he has been mentally reorganising Charing Cross Hospital. After two weeks there, he and his wife Mora have pinpointed areas of need which they feel could be filled by volunteers.

For example, in the radiotherapy waiting area, he says there are many older people who look miserable. 'There is enormous unhappiness and deep melancholia on their faces. Surely it is possible to get a team of young people to sing and act to them - and, more importantly, to get them to join in? You cannot say to older people life has finished and that is that; you must say to them 'You are a human being and there are things you can do',' he explains.

When he left Oxford University in the mid-1930s he joined the Yorkshire Post, keen to write about foreign affairs. Within two years he decided that doing something about a situation was more important than writing about it. So in 1938 he went to Czechoslovakia, to help with relief work after the Nazi occupation. 'In retrospect, I see that if you write well about something you can influence public opinion - especially in foreign affairs,' he says.

But it was as a soldier in east Africa during the Second World War, and afterwards in colonial service in west Africa, that the germ of an idea began to grow. He became convinced that young people could greatly help their fellow men and women, and effectively their country, through community service.

He says he was then cocky and arrogant enough to write to his seniors in the Cameroons, explaining that the schools were providing a perfect facsimile of the British educational system which turned out intelligent, English- speaking citizens - but they were not interested in helping their less privileged brethren. 'I argued that a new approach was needed so that young west Africans understood the problems of their own country,' he explains.

What followed was four 'extraordinary, happy' years developing the Man O'War centre in the Cameroons. Here, young men - and later women - from all over west Africa came for a month's training of outward-bound work, discussion about their country's needs - what would happen after independence? - and two weeks of community work.

'I was convinced that a brief energetic space of time could have an impact on attitudes,' he says. Many returned home keen to incorporate community work into their lives, and as proof of its efficacy the centre still thrives today. But on his return to England, Dr Dickson was not asked to repeat the formula elsewhere and found himself unemployed. His ideas, it seemed, were too precocious for sedate Britain in the 1950s.

With time to think, Dr Dickson and his wife created VSO in 1958, at their kitchen table. 'I had this vision that young people in Britain could, in their year between school and university, work in areas of rural community development abroad. A degree in agricultural development would not be needed,' he says.

In the first year, 16 people joined projects in Nigeria, Ghana and Sarawak, and Mrs Dickson says they had far fewer disasters in those years than they ought to have had. 'People wondered how 18-year- olds could be responsible enough: Wouldn't they run off and have love affairs? We said that if you believed in them, they would astonish you. They bloomed.'

During the early years, VSO - which had little support from the government - expanded rapidly. One of two apprentice engineers seconded from Rolls-Royce went to the Yemen to keep a village hospital running by servicing the generator. 'While he was there he became friendly with the local sheikh. He wrote to us saying he was a bit concerned because the sheikh had asked his advice about his daughter's education,' laughs Mrs Dickson.

But in 1962, only four years after it began, VSO abruptly asked Dr Dickson to leave. 'Part of the problem was my modus operandi - the committee never knew what was going to happen when I was in charge - I did not consult them enough.' There was a row about whether two volunteers in Somalia, which had suddenly become volatile, should return home or not. The volunteers, backed by Dr Dickson, wanted to stay; his committee disagreed.

'In the months afterwards I was close to despair, life seemed cruel and unfair,' he admits. What made it harder was that the US government had just consulted him about using VSO as the model for its new Peace Corps, which encouraged American graduates to work with real human needs.

But licking wounds is not the Dicksons' style, and within 12 months they had created CSV to encourage young people into full-time volunteering in Britain. 'There are as many social problems in Bermondsey as there are in Burma,' observes Dr Dickson.

CSV also gave them the opportunity to refine some of their methods. At VSO, Dr Dickson would agonise about rejecting someone, so this time their policy was to accept everyone. 'It must take a lot to screw yourself up to apply in the first place, so it could be damnably hurtful to be turned down,' he says.

In the first year, 30 volunteers were placed, the first going from his home in Surrey to work at Glasgow's Mossbank Approved School. Since then, CSV has widened its remit, and all age groups are now encouraged to volunteer, including schoolchildren, young offenders and people with physical disabilities.

CSV recently launched their Foster Gran scheme, whereby older, responsible people befriend younger people in residential care: 'It gives the young people someone confidential, who is not staff, to talk to,' explains Mrs Dickson.

Today, CSV places over 3,000 full-time and many more part-time volunteers each year; 50,000 have been placed since 1962. VSO has 1,700 people volunteering in 55 countries, but now only accepts graduates with relevant skills; 20,000 have been placed since 1958. Although Alec and Mora Dickson feel that CSV is more exciting, they cheerfully concede that VSO, their first-born, is the better known.

(Photograph omitted)