Volunteering time and energy to a good cause is something anyone can do at any age. Many people choose to volunteer because of their strong sense of humanitarianism. But there are those looking for a little cultural adventure as well. With reasons to get in involved in the dozens, both Eastern and Western Europeans have great choice in deciding where and how to offer their services. For those with the will but not sure about the way, organisations such as the European Voluntary Service (EVS) are a good a place as any to start.
With only a few organisations here in Ukraine international volunteers can truly rely on, Alternative-V is the exception rather than the rule. Doing what they can to ensure a good experience is had by all, Alternative-V Secretary, Oksana Yuruk, says, “Volunteers will often arrive with an idea of the experience they are going to have. The reality, however, is always different. Whatever happens, it’s important to incorporate what you’ve learned into your daily life so you may use those lessons in the future.”
Time To Help
Felix Schmidtke from Germany is one such volunteer. Here for just a little over a year already, he says boys from his country have to decide whether to serve six months in the national army or serve the world community upon graduation from high school. Not unlike Felix, 60% opt for volunteer work. “I wanted to break the stereotypes about Eastern Europe by choosing Ukraine for my project,” he says. “My mom was convinced I’d die here.” But as we sit and talk about his experience, I can see he is very much alive!
Sharing a flat in Troeshchyna with two other non-English speakers, Schmidtke admits he was at his wit’s end after his arrival. “I was assisting a German teacher, which was not easy. I had no one to talk to. Plus I was always lost because of the chaotic system of public transport.”
Signing on for just one year, his project placement ended this summer. He could have gone home. But he decided to stay for one more year, and today can be found living with a host family who has taught him to speak almost perfect Russian! Continuing to offer his tutorial services in German, he gives private lessons now and admits he is thoroughly enjoying himself this time round. “I’m going to explore Ukraine with ‘my family’ next spring,” he says. “We’ve already been to Crimea together!”
Gareth Byss from the UK is another volunteer here. He spends his time translating Ukrainian into English for the website of a social organisation in Rivne. With no Ukrainian language experience whatsoever, he works with internet translators turning the text into readable English. Previously employed as an international hospitality manager working throughout North America and Great Britain, “My job became so routine,” he says. “Everything was so perfectly organised I didn’t need to worry about anything. In Ukraine, no day is like the one before.”
Before opting to become a volunteer, Gareth had visited Ukraine twice, and considers the lifestyle here pretty entertaining. “I communicate with my host family using body language. There is no hot water so I shower by pouring water over myself from a big bowl. And the roads! They are something out of this world!”
An Incredible Experience
Ukrainians too have a need to help, and while there is always need here at home, many say the projects are better organised across the border and therefore often head in the direction of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Germany, Iceland and Norway. Typical projects can last anywhere from 6 – 12 months. But there are short-term projects available too, which many say is a good way to start out.
Yulia Mitsenko from Zaporizhya started volunteering after graduation. Offering her services to a project in Greece, she has twice worked with children with disabilities. “There were 15 volunteers, a few nurses and almost 100 kids. It was a lot of work but we were all treated like family!” Helping to feed babies, take kids to school and assist in daily therapy sessions, she offered her own classes for the kids in painting and modelling. “I loved my work, because there were no restrictions. I could have given any class that suited me.”
In addition to their daily duties, the volunteers would also take shifts to clean, shop or cook. Time was allocated for travel over the weekend, and living in Greece for six months Yulia learned a lot. “The Greeks I met really enjoy their lives. Despite the economic and political instability, they felt at ease.”
Lybov Prudkova is another generous heart, and taking part in her first project at the age of 11, she too worked with disabled kids for a project here in Ukraine called Believe In You. Headed in the direction of Germany on her first international project, the task was to build a road through a cemetery. Lybov admits being scared a lot! But says she took the job because it was all there was at the time and she was so eager to volunteer.
Moving on to the Czech Republic, she spent three months educating kids about her home country. Not long after, she returned to Germany, this time as the leader of a children’s summer camp. “It’s better to choose smaller cities when looking to volunteer abroad,” she says. “It’s far more cosy and often more sincere. The locals always knew who we were and would often treat us to snacks and stories.”
Here At Home
Back in Ukraine, the story isn’t so upbeat. Kateryna Sergeeva, coordinator for the Ukrainian social centre Volonter, says while they’ve got a base of 400 volunteers, quantity doesn’t always mean quality. “There are those who come just to make themselves feel better, and such people are typically untrustworthy. We need people who will spend time with the kids at children’s homes and orphanages we work with every week.” Because the children become so used to the volunteers, they begin to look forward to their weekly meetings. “It’s not only about playing with kids for a few hours. It’s about becoming a part of their lives. There is nothing better than that feeling of someone waiting for you.”
Unfortunately, the practise of volunteering here in Ukraine is still in its infancy, and when people do talk about pitching in for the greater good, these days there is an immediate image of football that accompanies it. With almost 24,000 Ukrainians having already signed up to help out at this event, PR campaigns promoting EURO-2012 have no doubt done their job. What’s interesting, however, is only a quarter of them are people from Kyiv, and Mykola Vorobyov of the Volunteer Association worries they won’t be ready. “At the moment, only 400 volunteers are prepared. Language schools aren’t being paid and they simply refuse to carry on without a fee.”
Another thorny problem is obligatory volunteering. Iryna Bodnar, Vice President of Ukraine’s Alternative-V, believes most of the volunteers are students and are being forced to offer their time. “We are losing the whole idea behind volunteer work and EURO 2012 is the cause. There will be people who never volunteer again because the country is making it obligatory.” While we can find no official information about mandatory assistance, Bodnar worries that people will come away with the “foolish to work for free” attitude.
One of the reasons this type of attitude permeates Ukrainian society, has to do with the government. Deliberating on a new law social workers say obscures the rationale behind charitable organisations in general, Iryna Bodnar is far more candid. She calls it an absolute absurdity, explaining that organisations such as Alternative-V will cease to exist should this law receive approval.
Further issues – far more ingrained in the system – rouse major indignation among volunteer organisations left, right and centre. One of the biggest problems currently forces charitable organisations to apply to an executive department in order to be eligible for the status of non-profit. The funny thing is this executive department isn’t even set up. But then there are also difficulties surrounding age restrictions and compulsory insurance as well.
While the idea of volunteer work here in Ukraine is very early stages just yet, there are those who know first hand the benefits that come from humanitarian aid. Many Ukrainians are fully aware of the rewards charitable work affords. But it’s the experience, the emotion and the knowledge they have helped in some way that keeps them coming back. If we could change that “foolish to work for free” attitude in even just a small percentage of people, there’s no telling the kind of country this could be.