The Role of Volunteering for You and Me
I want to start with a practical example of volunteering. This summer I was part of the Religious Youth Service (RYS). It took place in Estonia, Johvi, from the 1st to 10th of August, 2013. The project was supported by the Lutheran church of St. Michael, which provided us with accommodation, food and work support. 20 representatives from 13 different countries participated at this RYS projects, such as Germany, France, Austria, UK, Japan, USA, Canada, Italy, Greece, Estonia, and Philippines. The age ranged from 18 to 45 and representatives of four different religious groups were involved. Main purposes of this social project were improving and cleaning the memorial cemetery for German soldiers of the World War II, improving the building and grounds of the Lutheran church, and assisting with other work.
In the mornings we usually had lectures and discussions about universal human values, as well as training in building harmonious relationships in our environment and team building exercises. In the evenings we had the chance to get familiar with each other's traditions and customs, played together and performed together at talent night. We had the chance to get to know the history and some of the traditions of Estonia, for example through the lecture by the Lutheran pastor. We were able to do some excursions, such as a trip to an orthodox Monastery, a visit to the lake Peipsi and the Baltic Sea. Local people helped to get to know and understand their country. Although we had some language challenges with the locals, as most of them could not speak English, most of them could speak Russian with the Russian participants and we were able to get to know some of the locals and youth and involve them in some of the program.
Despite diversity in culture, customs and traditions, we were able to become close friends, and found a common language with each other. "I live in a country with a fairly homogeneous ethnic composition, so I thought it would be difficult to work with so many different people. However, I found that the differences are not as important as similarities,"- said Erina from Japan. I wanted to share this experience as Estonia is a former UdSSR country, and now is part of the EU. This could be a good example how Eurasia and Europe can cooperate for a culture of peace.
The role of volunteering for you and me
Volunteering or service projects does benefit the community or the people you are doing the project for, but sometimes volunteers can gain and benefit themselves even more. Through service projects, character education or discussions and interaction with other people, volunteers can have deep experiences. For some people it might be a life changing experience, such as finding their identity or purpose in life. It might also be just realizing something about other cultures or building up lifelong friendships. Moreover, we can get a better understanding of other cultures, religions, characters or values. Through service projects, we can overcome prejudices, stereotypes and other barriers. Furthermore, we can learn from other people and can develop our own character. This can be beneficial if we deal with people who are different than ourselves. Moreover, it can create cooperation and lifelong partnerships with people from all over the world, going beyond nationality, race or religion.
Secondly, volunteering and service projects can have a positive impact on the community. Just imagine someone would come to your town and improve public facilities or cleans up rubbish, without getting paid and without hidden agenda. Would you be touched or not? Therefore, through volunteering we can help people to overcome prejudices, inspire them and bring them together. For example, in Johvi, locals are facing some difficulties, especially youth, as there is a high unemployment rate, which does not give them vision or hope for their future and hence lots of young people are moving to the capital, Tallinn, or to Finland. However, by including locals and youth or at least giving them an example how they can contribute something to their community through volunteering, they might feel more valued and are encouraged to do more. In the long run it might give them vision and purpose for their live.
The forth UPF principle is ‘Living for the sake of others is the way to reconcile the divided human family’. By practicing living for the sake of others, we become other-centered rather than self-centered. Ethnocentrism often is in the way if we want to interact with other cultures, as it is the belief that values and assumptions of one’s culture are superior to those of other cultures. This view represents that the own group is in the centre of everything and one evaluates all others according to one’s own cultural standards. However, through volunteering and service work, we are first focusing on doing something for others and then for ourselves. Through that we can learn about other people, cultures, religions, etc. Therefore, we can say that the essence of a good character is true love expressed through unselfish actions.
The last UPF principle is ‘Peace comes through cooperation beyond the boundaries of ethnicity, religion and nationality’. Lasting peace cannot be achieved through political compromise alone, but requires addressing the root causes of conflict. Transcending racial, religious and ethnic barriers is an imperative of our time. Faith can give people the power to forgive, and the love to overcome even generations of hatred, resentment and violence. There might be political or economic conflicts between countries or continents, but through volunteering and service projects we can overcome these barriers and can even solve conflict or at least give people a reason to forgive and overcome negative feelings.
Looking into the future and taking a first step at this conference, I believe it is important to form cooperation between NGOs from Europe and Eurasia for future initiatives. For instance, next year there will be a UPF Youth seminar in Finland regarding education, a follow up to this years ‘Creating Change’ project in Malta. Furthermore, I encourage to do further service projects in former UdSSR countries or Europe and Russia with participants from Europe and Eurasia. Last, but not least I want to say that it is important to do volunteering to enhance cooperation between Eurasia and Europe.
Author: Marlies Haider
Former volunteer with Religious Youth Service (RYS)