Volunteer story of the month: Damien Gillette

This month, Damien Gillette, Project manager at Thales in Gennevilliers, shares his commitment as Vice President of the Five Hearts association for a multimedia learning centre project in Togo. Thanks to the Foundation’s support, the association was able to build a multimedia e-learning centre for disadvantaged children in northern Togo (Niamtougou).












What made you embark on this journey?


DG: “The reasons why I became involved in the Five Hearts association are in line with the Thales Foundation’s considerations and ambitions. Equality in education is often a topic of discussion in France, but let’s be honest, how many Thales employees actually come from disadvantaged backgrounds today?


I lived on a housing estate for ten years, but I was lucky my parents sent me to a high school with a 98% A levels success rate. On top of my studies, I gave private tutoring at a high school with an A levels success rate of 54%. How can one believe equal opportunities from this perspective? But what exactly can we do about it? When you are born in the right place at the right time, you’re not going to feel guilty about it. We can however try to rebalance opportunities by tutoring here and there, by giving time or money. It’s always a small drop in an ocean of iniquity.


Dodzi, a kid I used to teach on the estate, came to me one day and said: “Damien, I have a project. In Togo, 1 out of 2 children attends primary school and 1 out of 5 attends secondary school. If we reverse the proportions, it means 4 children out of 5 are working instead of attending secondary school”. He then pointed out that with his minimum wage in France, he earned 40 times its equivalent in Togo. He wanted to reinvest this money in an association. He was 20 years old. I said to myself: “Yes, I’m going to help him”.


How did the multimedia e-learning centre project come to mind?


DG : “In 2008, we started to support tutoring and tuition fees for 12, then 23 and finally 30 children. In 2012, Matthieu Vallet, department director at Thales in Gennevilliers, came up with the idea to open a library in Togo. We made it happen. Two years ago, Delphine Baudoin, who works at the sales operations department, referred to the Thales Foundation as a potential support. I thought it was only for large associations and that we wouldn’t stand a chance…but we gave it a try! Our project evolved in line with the Foundation’s ambitions in terms of science and digital education, and thus we offered to build an e-learning centre.”


What has been achieved so far?


DG: “At the start of the adventure, we focused mainly on school supply donations, tutoring and health monitoring, then we started to introduce more scientific actions. Our multimedia library was equipped with 3 computers. We began to give computer lessons, set up a basic e-learning training course and tested our first science experiments, such as the extraction of banana DNA or the analysis of the sun’s effect on our skin. In 2016, the Thales Foundation selected our project, contributing to 50% of the funds and allowing us to think even bigger. Plans for our multimedia learning centre went from 40m² to 70 m². The project is therefore a little more expensive and more time-consuming, but we were able to make room for more children, a hundred a day. Why think small, when you can think big and fit 100 people?


We began the works: we bought and cleared a piece of untouched land, laid down the foundations, built up the walls and gave shape to the outside structure. The interior design has been completed since the beginning of the year. Several computers have been delivered and the first computer classes have taken place. This summer, we will officially inaugurate the e-learning centre in Niamtougou.”


Did other Thales employees volunteer for this project


DG: “Yes, around 40 Thales employees supported me on this project. They helped to collect portable computers, essential for our project, download e-learning course content in order to enable e-learning training in the field, and collect funds by participating in volunteer actions in France during charity events. Let’s not forget the Thales sports association which donated 120 tee-shirts for our children in Togo!


As well as benefitting from these donations and involvement, I also had the opportunity to present my project at a management meeting in Gennevilliers, where I realised how much the Thales Foundation could reinforce the image the employees have of the company. Many people came up to me saying: “I saw your presentation, I didn’t know Thales did that, it’s something positive in the social sector, another reason to be attached to our company”. A number of managers, the Vice President and even the President donated video projectors and digital tablets following the meeting.”


What was the role of the Foundation in this project?


DG: “The Thales Foundation made us think about the evolution of society, the importance of science and the necessity to change our teaching methods. When you think about it, our education system is based on teachers transferring their knowledge vertically to their students, who never question its content. However, in today’s working world, we search for the best solution among hundreds or thousands of possible answers, like an Internet research. We are developing our critical mind, but not our education system. Another example: working in a company, 80% of our time is spent collaborating in teams, with our colleagues or our client, with our hierarchy and with users, whereas at school, the focus is on individual achievement: the best student can choose his own path.


Iniquity will continue to exist; our action is but a drop in the ocean. Nevertheless, it’s a drop containing 133 students, 15 students having passed their A levels, 3 people who won scholarships to study at universities in France, 2 school structures and 2 hospital programmes. Our action seems insignificant, but the Thales Foundation has helped us to inflect on the weight in the scales and rebalance opportunities for all.”


You have already been involved in one of the Foundation’s projects and would like to share your experience? Send us your volunteer story and photos!