Dawn Rowlands, PA at the Birmingham office of national law firm Shoosmiths, gives a personal account of what CSR means to her since a trip to help AIDS/HIV victims at St Francis Care Centre, in Boksburg, South Africa.

For me, corporate social responsibility (CSR) was just a meaningless acronym describing any firm’s apparent commitment and responsibility to society.

When we’ve held charity events at Shoosmiths, I’ve always donated but have never felt completely engaged. But I had never been given the rare opportunity to witness at first hand the difference my own personal participation could make to other people’s lives.

So when the opportunity arose to travel to the St Francis Centre in South Africa, I felt it was a chance to do my bit and discover the real meaning of CSR.

My first experience of actually feeling ‘engaged’ began when each of us took responsibility for organising donations of unwanted clothes at each of our local offices prior to the visit with the intention of making the donation in person on arrival at the centre.

The first thing I saw at the centre was a young woman, crying whilst walking from a building. I later learned that the corridor she had just left was for the terminally ill.

As well as volunteering our services, Shoosmiths donated a car to staff at the centre to help transport patients and collect medical supplies. The gratitude and relief expressed by the staff was a poignant experience for me. I realised that I was seeing the impact of CSR first hand, and for once, I felt part of it.

We met a number of patients, including those benefiting from the anti-retroviral treatment which was purchased from funds donated by individuals and companies alike. We were then shown into a section for the terminally ill AIDS patients. I found this shocking and although I was warned, nothing can possibly prepare you for the look of fear and sadness in their faces.

An extension - The Rainbow Centre - is a haven for orphaned children and those born with HIV. Children there are schooled by qualified teachers. Nurses rallied around them, making them feel comfortable and cared for. They were very excited to see us; some wanted to play, others just wanted to be cuddled.

Four babies lay on a mattress, feeding themselves. Staff simply didn’t have the resources to look after and feed all the children simultaneously.

This was where we came in. Throughout the rest of the week, I helped by spending time with patients, talking and listening, as well as helping to paint the centre.

Every day, I witnessed the relentless hard work and efforts of the staff, from Grannie, the liaision officer, who regularly goes out into the community to educate people about HIV, to Tauw, the local handyman.

There are even regular chapel services, held by Father Stan Brennan, who founded the centre in 1992. All were welcome and attendance was high.

Having been lucky enough to have been involved in this project, I now know what CSR means to me and it’s no longer just a meaningless acronym.

I have been privy to the immense impact that each individual’s efforts can have on the quality of someone’s life and have learned that CSR really is everyone’s responsibility.

When the concept is explored thoroughly and its message properly incorporated into the core culture of any firm, it can produce tangible life-changing results, both for the individuals employed by that firm and for those benefiting from the corporate donations.

This experience has been a learning curve; one that I intend to incorporate into my everyday life, not just at work.

* What does CSR mean to you? Share your views with Thrive readers. Email Annie Roberts