UpClose & Personal: Meet Tonyehn Verkitus
There are on-line dating services and websites to match not-so-handy homeowners with plumbers or painters. Wouldn’t it be great if there was someplace people who wanted to contribute to a cause or their community a could find opportunities that matched their interests and skill set. That would be GiveGab.com. Described as a “social network for volunteers,” GiveGab was founded locally a couple of years ago and has grown to serve an international clientele. Tonyehn Verkitus has been there since before there was a website when GiveGab was still a confusing acronym (IYOUVO) and a pile of post-it notes describing a great idea whose time had come. The Executive Director of Community Citizenship for GiveGab, Verkitus sees herself as a sort of nomad who grew up in a lot of places but she’ll call Richmond, Va. home if pressed since that’s where she spent the most time. She brought four years experience working on community events at the American Cancer Society to Give Gab as well as a strong family tradition of service. She serves on the Lackawanna County Council on Arts, Culture, and Education and is on the board of directors of Shalom Scranton (shalomscranton.org), which manages the newly revitalized Greenhouse at Nay Aug Park. Want to be part of a GiveGab pilot program? Sign up to participate in a Bonfire at the Iron Furnaces VolMob on Saturday between 11 and 4 p.m. Meet Tonyehn Verkitus …
GiveGab is website based?
It is. We have an office but not a space that you’d walk into to get help. We support some universities in Scotland, Canada, and England. A couple of nonprofits in Africa and India. We are doing a project with New Zealand where we are supporting their nonprofits.
That’s some pretty significant growth.
From three people in a living room, yeah. There are 20 of us now, I think. It’s interesting to go up to the Ithica office where the headquarters are— there’s almost always a new face, new interns or new employees. That’s where all the developers work. When we first went to work on the website, we went to this place in New York and they told us to create post-its with all our ideas and literally they had a pile that they called the WTF pile. Because we couldn’t even verbalize what it was — we understood it ourselves, but to try and explain it to someone else … being able to get from that place to where you can not only verbalize it but put it into action, is a lot more difficult than you might think.
Volunteerism is something that often seems to happen more by accident than in a managed way.
Exactly. I also don’t think people think of themselves as volunteers. There’s something about the word “volunteer” that implies that it’s some sort of title and if I am a volunteer I must have a cause that I support and then I have to go out and do that all the time. But in actuality, if you help your neighbor rake leaves, that’s volunteering. And I think if you can switch the way people think about volunteering, so they don’t view it as something they have to show up to do everyday and that’s the only thing they can care about and they have to be the spokesperson for it — you can do whatever you want, just get out there and help in some way, shape or form.
I’ve noticed groups like neighborhood watch groups really using social media in an effective way.
Social media makes a huge difference. You get to see bits and pieces of every organization’s story. Take neighborhood watch — you can see it doesn’t mean I have to walk around my neighborhood all night long with a flashlight looking for crime. They’re saying, I can just be aware of what’s happening outside my door and that’s being helpful.
You can participate in whatever way makes sense to you.
Right. And that’s exactly why we’re doing the whole VolMob thing. Just because it is a simple way to contribute without having to think long and hard about it. It’s like just come out, help us to put together this event. You can come for two hours or twenty minutes, it doesn’t matter. VolMob is like ‘flash mob volunteering’ and this is our first attempt at it. I chose Scranton because I live here, and I chose the bonfire because I’ve been involved with the event before. It is the sort of event that lends itself to tasks people can do if they just show up. Setting up tables, breaking down palettes, filling bags of sand for luminaries — that’s something anyone can do. It gives you the opportunity to meet other people and you’re all participating on this thing together. You get a free ticket to the event later so you can come back and see your work in action.
This is a model you’d like to use other places?
It’s something we’d like to promote on a more national level. So as I’m hearing about events that folks are doing — could be in Philadelphia, could be in Minnesota, it doesn’t matter— but those sort of events that lend itself to this, like a park clean up— Earth Day is a great example. That’s the sort of thing we can promote as a VolMob. It doesn’t matter how many people come out. I don’t think you’d ever turn people away from cleaning up a park
How did The Greenhouse Project happen? I remember Shalom Scranton running that community garden down on Irving?
We still have that, and then we were given the opportunity to expand here to The Greenhouse with educational programs for children and adults. We just built terrariums. It’s great to have this space. This is our first year. We’ve sold a lot of plants, like Mums, and garden items. I believe we’re going to do poinsettias when the Christmas lights are up. I don’t think we’ll have a ton of activity. Maybe we’ll do a wreath building project. This is our first year, we’re still figuring out what we can do. We were also picked up as a Leadership Lackawanna project, so we’ll be doing an event with them to kick off the spring season, which is nice because it helps us focus more on programming and not branding. So hopefully with their help people will learn that we’re here… this summer, the people who just knew about it would spread the word and I’d come here to buy cucumber plants or something and they’d be running out. I mean, wouldn’t you rather come here than like (a chain store).
You also volunteer through your kids.
My kids are important to me and Nymali just started the swim team so I guess I’ll volunteer to sell T-shirts at one of the meets. I don’t really care about selling T-shirts, but it’s important to her and it supports her, so I’ll do it. That’s volunteering, too, although people don’t think of it that way. You don’t need to get a reward for joining the PTA, but you should be able to acknowledge to yourself that you’re doing more than you have to do.
Tell me more about your family’s nonprofit.
It’s called ACE Liberia which stands for African Community Exchange. We started it one Thanksgiving. Every other Thanksgiving we do this family reunion type thing in the Outer Banks. And we were sitting around the table putting together a puzzle, cause we’re dorks, and just talking about what can we do for the country now that it seems to be getting back on its feet. I lived there from when I was seven until 13, and when we left it was because of the civil war and all that was going on. And no one was necessarily ready to move back and start over, but it was this idea of how can we give back even if we’re not there? So we created this nonprofit with this idea that we can identify problems in Liberia and then find nonprofits that were offering solutions and kind of pair the two. Because my family travels back and forth, there’s always someone on the ground in Liberia to help.
You helped found a school — the Anne Sandell International School — as part of that?
What happened is we ended up adopting this school because my aunt had given property to a woman who during the civil war had taken a bunch of children over to a refugee camp in Ghana just to kind of get them out of the area. And when this woman came back to Liberia her with all these kids, my aunt offered the property and they turned the house into a school that started with 20 kids. I think at one point it was up to 1,000 and we had to cull it down. …Thousands upon thousands of students recently failed the national exam to get into The University of Liberia. The President, needless to say, is horrified that the education system has gotten so bad. One of the things that we’ve been planning to do is make the Anne Sandell School a model program that other schools in Liberia can follow. And the President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, actually called my mother to talk to her about how we can facilitate this happening. My mother used to work for the Ministry of Education, so she already knew of her and what we were doing. We started another program called Each One, Teach One — which is, if you know how to read, teach another person to read. And that became a national initiative.
It’s nice to be able to do something like that with your family. Sounds like you’re very close.
We have a huge extended family. Some people have left the board; some are still on. We have people who aren’t family who are on the board now. Most of the folks that aren’t related to us did live in Liberia at some point. We’re expanding. We don’t have paid employees or anything, but hopefully, when my Mom retires, that will be her new job. The whole nonprofit thing runs in the family.