Volunteers can be found serving in all areas of everyday life, whether they are firefighters or children’s soccer coaches. They may also read to kindergarteners or visit the elderly in retirement homes. Additionally, municipalities and public administration entities are currently also very much dependent on volunteers to help manage the refugee crisis.
Cultural pessimists often remark that people of our generation— hyper-mobile digital natives—not only lack empathy, but are also lazy and do not take an active role in shaping the society they want to live in. However, statistics prove otherwise:46,8% of young people (aged 14-29) in Germany are volunteering in their free time. Let’s meet three of them to find out more about their motivations, insights, and about what they have learned.
Since I came back from a university semester abroad in Poland in 2013, I have been an active member of the “Gemeinschaft für studentischen Austausch in Mittel-und Osteuropa” (GFPS e.V.), an organization founded in West Germany in 1984, which funded my stay through a scholarship. Powered solely by its members’ volunteer work, GFPS promotes intercultural exchange between German, Polish, Czech, and Belarusian students by offering scholarships and organizing regular cultural events. Together with other members, I ran two workshops about European history and cultural memory in the 20th century. Furthermore, I was part of GFPS e.V.’s selection committee to promote single-semester scholarships for German students who want to study in Poland or the Czech Republic.
I want to motivate German students of all academic disciplines to spend a semester in one of our Eastern neighbor countries. Doing so is an excellent opportunity to gain insight into the Polish and Czech cultures, which are so closely linked to German history and society. Up until this day, there are still mutual misunderstandings and prejudices between Poles, Czechs, and Germans – and the best way to discuss and dismantle them is through interpersonal relationships.
On a practical level, I’ve gained deep insight into how an active international organization with nearly 400 members functions, as well as how to promote teamwork. I’ve also learned how to integrate my volunteer work into my professional life. But what’s even more important to me at the personal level are the people I’ve met and the moments we have shared. At every GFPS event, students with futures in the political, cultural, economic, and other spheres come together to eat, laugh, and also have serious discussions. These are the types of moments that transcend everyday life, bolstering a sort of “European spirit” that is rich with knowledge about intercultural communication. Lastly, through volunteering, I have gotten to know new people in my age group, some of whom have become friends and have helped me keep close ties to Poland.
Tim, 27, LGBTQ* and Green Activist
I have been committed to several different groups at my university for almost five years. The LGBTQ*group (queer@uni) was the first one; I really enjoyed working with my peers there. We organize a lot of different events for students, such as lectures, parties and discussions about topics that are related to the LGBTQ* community. I mostly organized our regular group meetings, as well as several talks with other speakers. Twice, I was also was a speaker myself. In addition, I have been involved in politics and as a member of the Green Student Party. This was my first experience in politics. At the time, I had already been a student parliament member for almost three years and had even headed the group after my first term. It was a lot of work, but I also learned a great deal about managing and leading meetings. Since I was already politically engaged at my university, I started to attend the local branch of the German Green Party. At the moment I am a member of different councils and am also the Chairman of the Green Party in Siegen. I have enjoyed all of these experiences very much, despite some difficult times.
I actually don’t remember why I started volunteering in so many groups. Some friends were already doing it,so I did, too. I started participating in different groups because I wanted to change things in a more active way. Now, volunteering has become a big part of my life. The queer student group has been—and still is—especially important to me. As a gay person, I would like to change the world – starting with small steps, like eliminating discrimination against LGBTQ* and other students at my university. LGBTQ* is one of my main issue areas, and my second greatest focus is on the environment and sustainability. In my opinion, right now, the Green party in Germany is the best platform for combining these topics and fighting for a better world. Maybe this sentence is used too often, but I do believe that a single person can change the world – even if it is just a very small change.
I will start with the lessons I have learned: firstly, if someone has a different opinion than you, don’t be discouraged – instead, try to discuss it and offer your own arguments. Secondly, even though a lot of things don’t go according to plan, they usually turn out to be all right in the end. Thirdly, engaging in multiple groups is sometimes exhausting, annoying, and difficult, but the outcome makes it all worth it!
On a personal level, I’ve also gained a lot. I have become more self-confident and have discovered the core issues that matter to me. Through my work at queer@uni, I have realized that I would really like to do some academic research about LGBTQ* history, which I probably would have never realized had I not volunteered there. And even though I am quite pessimistic in general, I’ve gained a bit hope that the future will be better and with a bit less discrimination.
I have been an active volunteer at verbuendungshausfforste.V. in Frankfurt (Oder) for many years. The fforst is an intercultural living project that is also engaged in the realm of culture. It was initiated ten years ago by students and is a very vibrant place here in Frankfurt, a town at the German-Polish border. Over the years, I have taken on many different tasks. When thirty people live together and work on big projects, there are always different things to organize. These tasks range from the mundane—cleaning the assembly room, selling drinks at our bar, painting the hallway—to the specialized, such as writing grant applications to fund our events or calculating the renovation budget. For a while I was also responsible for the project’s public relations – we invented and implemented the funniest Guerrilla Marketing strategies!
Frankfurt (Oder) is a small town where inhabitants play a crucial role in co-creating cultural events. Opportunities to get engaged are infinite! All you have to do is take the lead and become active. At fforst, I found many like-minded people with whom I could organize parties and concerts based on my own ideas. Over time, I have also made many very close friends. Together with them, I can try many things that I would have never gotten to doon my own.
Living together with people from around the world in a large community has influenced me very much. I have learned a lot about myself and my ideas about successful cohabitation. Last but not least, I have gained many of the “soft” and “hard” skills that are constantly required of us in the professional environment. The biggest treasure from my time at fforst, however, are my friends. Living together for such a long time and planning projects together has helped us form intense connections. These are the friendships I can’t do without anymore!
For most people, volunteering is both a matter of creating the society they want to live in and making new friends. Volunteering is a shared endeavor that brings together idealism, activism, and fun to help us shape our society.
At Eastbook, we’d like to explore some pan-European but also local transformative initiatives in more detail. We will examine the movements’ models for societal alternatives, as well as their methods for achieving them. Our goal is to identify and share sources of inspiration for regional and global change.