ALEC DICKSON was the founder of Voluntary Service Overseas and Community Service Volunteers. VSO sent its first young volunteers out to developing countries in 1958 and it inspired a generation of young people. VSO's influence in the United States was seminal and led to President John F. Kennedy's setting up the American equivalent, the Peace Corps, in 1961.
Dickson was a visionary, and a crucial part of his vision was to see that when young people helped those worse off than themselves, the giver gained as much as the recipient. He had faith in humanity and a belief in young people and the power of trust.
Born in 1914 and educated at Rugby and New College, Oxford, Dickson started his working life as a journalist with the Yorkshire Post in 1936. Even at that early stage he devoted much of his spare time to voluntary work with young offenders and scouts. From the outset he attracted a degree of notoriety; combining work as a foreign correspondent with deep concern for the slum children of Leeds and London. In 1937 he went to Czechoslovakia for the Daily Telegraph but when the Germans invaded he gave up journalism and started working with refugees in Prague. Indeed, his opposition to the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia led to his being placed 57th on the list of those to be arrested by the Gestapo in the event of an invasion of Britain.
Once war was declared he served in the Army in Finland and Abyssinia and then worked in Nairobi, where he organised a war propaganda unit which toured British East Africa. That experience led after the Second World War to 15 years in the Middle East and South East Asia, during which he trained young people in community work.
It was while working for the British Council of Churches at the time of the Hungarian uprising of 1956 that Dickson had the idea for Voluntary Service Overseas. He saw the impact of Western students in refugee relief and how much valuable work could be done by the young. To be 18 and untrained was, as far as Dickson concerned, a positive advantage.
A letter from the Bishop of Portsmouth - in fact written by Dickson - to the Sunday Times calling for school leaver volunteers to work overseas led to the first 12 recruits leaving for Sarawak, Ghana and Cameroon. Working from their kitchen table, Dickson and his wife Mora founded Voluntary Service Overseas.
Inevitably, as VSO grew the organisation became more professional and policy differences developed, based on the conflicting demands of Dickson's desire to send raw young people out to work overseas and the need in the recipient countries for those who were qualified. In 1962 Dickson resigned the VSO directorship.
He turned to another challenge, Community Service Volunteers, an organisation for young volunteers in Britain. Again working from the kitchen table, and with nothing to guide him except the support of Mora and a conviction that it could be done, he sent the first volunteer from London to a Glasgow approved school in 1962. CSV now employs 3,000 volunteers a year; VSO has 1,700.
Dickson was inordinately proud of his two honorary doctorates from Leeds and Bristol and was the author of several books on education and community service. I met Dickson on a variety of occasions but the abiding memory is of the first: being summoned by him to a meeting at 11.30pm at Sheffield Midland station (he was, as usual, in transit), to discuss my recently announced placing as a volunteer at a northern remand home. I was barely 17 years old. Though there were clear similarities between my recent experience in a public school boarding-house and life with 50 delinquents in a secure unit, my sense of panic was held at bay only by my sense of shock. I do not remember his exact words, but he said he trusted me, as he trusted all his volunteers, to do the job, to help someone along the way and to end up just a little wiser after. It was a turning point in my life and I know from countless conversations that I was one of many who were similarly affected.
Those with vision are not rare; there are fewer of Dickson's type: those who combine vision with a capacity to get things done. At a time when so much in society is called into question, Alec Dickson had the courage to provide not just one but two answers.
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