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Caring & Giving

5 Stories of Employees Giving Back: “The Six-Month Assignment That Changed My Life”

A unique Johnson & Johnson program pairs employees with NGOs for do-gooder stints around the world.

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What are you most thankful for?

It's a question that Americans across the country will be asking themselves as they gather around the Thanksgiving table with loved ones this year.

But the concept of giving thanks—and, more importantly, giving back—is by no means a purely U.S. tradition during the holiday season.

Annet Eijkelkamp Annet EijkelkampDirector EMEA, Knowledge Transfer and People Engagement, Johnson & Johnson Corporate Citizenship Trust certainly knows this first-hand. Three years ago, she developed an initiative at Johnson & Johnson that's all about giving back.

It's called the Johnson & Johnson Corporate Citizenship Trust Secondment Strategy Program, and in a nutshell, it allows employees to take a six-month stint away from their day jobs to volunteer with charitable organizations that have partnered with the company to do good in under-served communities.

To date, 24 employees have participated in the program, taking on assignments in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

“I call it a triple win,” Eijkelkamp says. “Not only do the charities get help with specific skill sets from our employees that they may not have in-house, but our employees also get to experience something that helps them grow personally and professionally. And Johnson & Johnson benefits, too, because they return to their jobs with a new perspective and greater leadership skills.”

This year's “secondees,” as graduates of the program are called, have just wrapped up their volunteer stints, so in honor of the giving season, we asked five past participants to share how the secondment program impacted their lives—and that of the people they helped.

  • Share Wey (second from left) and her team in The Gambia

    The Employee: Josi Wey, Regional Quality & Compliance Manager, Johnson & Johnson Consumer, Germany

    The Assignment: SOS Children's Villages, The Gambia

    “As an engineer, I have a technical background, but I wanted to use my skills in a different kind of way. So when I heard about the Secondment Program, I knew I wanted to do it.

    I wound up doing community outreach with SOS Children’s Villages in The Gambia [in West Africa], promoting awareness and the importance of cervical cancer screening opportunities.

    Leaving my job—and my country—for six months definitely took a lot of preparation, like figuring out who would take care of my cats and apartment. But the work I did was so important—and I learned so much.

    I’ll never forget one woman I met. After she got her screening, she gave me a huge hug, and thanked me. ‘Now I know about cervical cancer, and I’m going to get all of my female friends and neighbors to get screened,’ she told me.

    It was truly an incredible feeling to experience in the moment how the work I was doing was directly impacting someone.

    Today I’m a much more flexible and understanding person. When you travel around to villages to try and spread awareness about something that is quite taboo, it can be incredibly challenging. But to face that big task, chip away at it and get somewhere? I’m really proud.”
  • Share Mallick meets with Dharma Life entrepreneurs in a Maharashtra village in India

    The Employee: Laurence Mallick, Regional New Business Development Senior Manager, Janssen Latin America

    The Assignment: Dharma Life, India and South Africa

    “Three years into my job, I was ready for a change—and the opportunity to work with an NGO, while maintaining my job, sounded ideal. I thought to myself, If you don’t do it now, you may never have another chance.

    So I went to India to work with Dharma Life, which supports local entrepreneurs by offering them developmental support and training to improve the livelihoods of their villages.

    During my first month, I helped with their operations, and visited villagers to participate in talks on the importance of hygiene and the dangers of indoor air pollution. I’ll always remember meeting one woman from a conservative village who had to seek permission from her father and husband to join the organization. Today she’s a change agent in her village.

    My remaining time with Dharma Life was spent in South Africa, building alliances and creating an expansion strategy for the NGO. What was especially inspiring was meeting with social entrepreneurs who, despite having few resources, are working hard to help the poorest advance in their communities. It was an honor—and truly inspiring—to meet courageous people like this.”
  • Share Büchel at a Roadside Wellness Centre in Kenya

    The Employee: Thomas Büchel, Customer & Shopper Marketing Leader, Johnson & Johnson Consumer, Germany

    The Assignment: North Star Alliance, sub-Saharan Africa

    “Imagine a dusty parking area next to a busy highway where sex workers stand ready and waiting to cater to the needs of the nearly 600 truck drivers who stop there each night.

    I went there one of my first nights on assignment in sub-Saharan Africa with North Star Alliance, which provides hard-to-reach populations with sustainable and quality health services. The thought of working in an environment where my ideas could immediately touch people’s lives has always appealed to me. But as you can imagine, seeing this was like diving into a completely different world.

    You’d think these truck drivers would be self-confident—masters of the road, so to speak. But they aren't that at all. They shared with me how difficult it is to be on the road and make enough money for their families.

    And due to the high rate of sexual contact they have, it’s an environment that easily fosters the spread of sexually transmitted infections, so it's important to get them proper healthcare before they bring disease back to their families.

    This is why I founded the Star Driver Program, an initiative designed to help the organization ensure that highly mobile populations, such as truck drivers, have access to basic health services through a network of Roadside Wellness Centres.

    One of the drivers actually became a peer educator who now talks to as many truck drivers as he can and recruits others to help him spread the word. This man told me that his brother had died of HIV, so he was on a mission to get more people into a healthier life. To me, it was proof that the work the organization is doing is working.

    The chance to give back truly helped bring Johnson & Johnson's company Credo to life in a unique way. And it definitely challenged me to go outside my comfort zone."
  • Share Mayer on a site visit in Kenya with Hand in Hand International

    The Employee: Klara Mayer, Country Disease Manager Hematology, Janssen, Austria

    The Assignment: Hand in Hand International, United Kingdom

    "My boss was the one who actually introduced me to the Secondment program and encouraged me to apply. The opportunity to make a change in my life, while truly making a difference in someone else's, was too good to pass up. And how many people get to do that with the full support of their employer?

    So I went to London to help Hand in Hand International—which supports budding entrepreneurs in some of the world’s poorest countries—figure out if it would make sense to expand their fundraising efforts beyond the United Kingdom into German-speaking markets.

    As part of my work, it was important for me to see the impact of the organization firsthand. So I took a trip to Nairobi, Kenya, where I met some very inspiring people Hand in Hand had helped to employ, including a group of 14 women who are now farming to make money for their families. It was amazing to hear about their lives before they received this support—and to see them so full of ideas on how to grow both professionally and personally.

    These women helped me see the immense value in team spirit and fostering a sense of togetherness. Even in a very remote part of the world, where families live with very little infrastructure and huge distances between them, these people create community.

    At Hand in Hand’s office in the U.K., I also saw this happen among a diverse group of employees, who represented 10 nationalities. We all pulled together.

    I remember this often now that I’m back in my role at Johnson & Johnson, and it inspires my decisions each and every day.”
  • Share Sereni at a BabyCare in Kenya

    The Employee: Vittorio Sereni, Country Manager, Janssen, Kenya

    The Assignment: Aga Khan Development Network, East Africa

    “I’m a father of 6-year-old twins, so I could relate to the work I did with Aga Khan Development Network to improve the operations of BabyCare [an organization that helps set up informal childcare facilities] sites in East Africa on a very personal level.

    When you work at an NGO, you quickly learn how to do your job with very little resources. For instance, I was helping train mothers managing BabyCare sites on how to more efficiently run their businesses. We used little beads as money so they could practice making change and handling cash flow.

    We were having fun, and watching these women find joy as they were learning—and then seeing that they really had picked up what I taught them—was so gratifying.

    During another training session to teach BabyCare workers how to engage babies, we created toys out of old plastic water bottles by filling them with pebbles and painting them. A few weeks later, I visited a site and saw they were using them with the children. It’s amazing how people will adapt if you teach them how—and sometimes that means you have to get a little creative.

    Learning how to overcome challenges in a nonprofit environment has really helped me back in my role at Johnson & Johnson. When you learn how to make a little go a long way, you become more efficient—and that is useful. I credit my time working with Aga Khan Development Network for these important lessons.”