Meaningful Study Trips to Berlin: Volunteering as a Possibility to Experience the other “Sight” of the City
by Benedetta Caputi
Brandenburg Gate, Holocaust Memorial, Eastside Gallery, a stroll through the hip neighbourhoods of Kreuzberg and a long night at Watergate. This could be a typical schedule of a student trip to Berlin. Students take pictures and get a lot of new impressions about the capital´s history and its highlights. But not everyone gets to see and experience the less popular sides, the “other sights” of Berlin – not to mention the possibility to give something back to the city.
That’s why we from vostel.de started our student volunteering programme. The aim is to allow students to better understand Berlin´s inner identity, which is seldom visible at first sight, while getting involved in local communities in order to help people in need through volunteering activities.
The students taking part in our programme usually all have the following things in common: They’re super enthusiastic, curious and overall willing to do something good for society! Consequently, our main concern is to perfectly match the students’ interests and talents with the organisations’ needs, to make sure all the potential is exploited to the full. Therefore, the organisations involved in our programme are heterogeneous in terms of size, aim pursued and topic covered and offer a big variety of volunteering activities. Moreover, all of them are open to welcome students from all over the world and clearly see the benefits to incorporate people from different (cultural) backgrounds to their work.
To give an insight to the great achievements done by the students that are involved in the programme, we’d like to share one of our very first experiences with the wonderful students from Hogeschool van Amsterdam who are in their second year at the faculty of Social Work. Through their one week study trip to Berlin, they had the opportunity to practically experience different, complex and challenging environments outside their city and therefore outside their “comfort-zone”. Probably, a possibility like this should be given to every student who’s focusing his or her studies on social work, in order to give them the chance to deal with different realities, backgrounds and identities.
In particular, the included projects in the students volunteering trip were:
- Berliner Tafel, responsible for sorting food that would be otherwise thrown away and distributing it to people in need.
- WASLALA Adventure Playground, an amazing adventure playground entirely dedicated to kids who have the possibility to perform any kind of open-air activity, from gardening to building benches, from making honey to riding horses.
- Berliner Obdachlosenhilfe, an organisation that, through mobile tours around Berlin, distribute food and clothes to people in need.
- Pass the Crayon, a small but brilliant project, that aims at improving the daily life of refugee kids through little arts sessions, spontaneous games and a lot of smiles.
- Last but not least, Berliner Stadtmission and the lunch shifts they daily organize in a refugee shelter.
Every group of students dedicated an average of 8 hours to their chosen project. Some of the projects required the students’ presence on-site for 8 hours in a row, whereas others required several, but briefer presence throughout the whole week.
“The possibility to be a partaker through the whole chain made them even more interested and concerned about the issue.”
The project of Berliner Tafel, chosen by the students Tsiona, Roziena, Flip, Joep and Danielle, was introduced to them by Sarah Richey, the main responsible for volunteering activities of Berliner Tafel. She’s a great woman who daily takes care about the training of both new and old volunteers. She explained them the history of the organisation and its main duties. The students were all really curious, with their heads full of questions and strongly interested in the field. Sarah was perfectly able to satisfy their interests and curiosity. Throughout the week, the students had the chance to perform different sorts of tasks, from sorting food to distributing it to people in need. And probably, the possibility to be a partaker through the whole chain made them even more interested and concerned about the issue.
On Tuesday, some other students had the opportunity to meet Martin Ringenbach, responsible of Pass the Crayon, who dedicates his spare time to refugee kids, playing and painting with them and mostly, making them feel loved. He’s a great guy and the three girls from Amsterdam, Beau, Cindy and Elza were really amazed by his work and were immediately willing to play with the kids as he was doing. Although this project was smaller than the others included in the programme, Martin needs a lot of help from volunteers: He’s often by him-self and the kids… you know how kids are.
“When the time had come to have a direct contact with homeless people, they all suddenly became more serious and professional, but still full of humanity and empathy towards ‘the other”.
On Wednesday, the group of students composed by Eemon, Lizette, Mick, Emine, Jasper and Lucas went to volunteer at Berliner Obdachlosenhilfe. They also had the chance to be present throughout the whole process, from the preparation of sandwiches and salads, to the actual mobile tours around Berlin. During the preparation phase, the environment was really chilled and relaxed. The students were constantly and informally asking interesting questions to Flo and Sebastian, the responsible guys from this day’s BOH tour. Though, when the time had come to have a direct contact with homeless people, they all suddenly became more serious and professional, but still full of humanity and empathy towards “the other”.
The day after, Menno, Laura, Sophie, Roos, Lara and Maindrian, went to the WASLALA Adventure Playground project, where they had the chance to meet Guido, the guy who takes care of WASLALA’s volunteers. In general, the playground they have built throughout the years is quite impressive and nothing is missing there. The children were constantly making new friendships while climbing the little mountains installed on the playground, planting tomatoes and spending time watching tadpoles in the lake. During the days of volunteering, the guys from Amsterdam performed lots of different tasks such as burning old woods or creating new signs for the vegetable garden. And from Guido’s feedback, they were all really happy, committed and interested as well.
“The situation in which volunteers handed the plates full of food to the shelter’s resident is always as meaningful as difficult to forget. It is actually a moment in which there´s a deep exchange between the two people, rich of smiles and generosity.”
On the last day of the Hogeschool study trip, Valesca, Larissa, Queeny and Iris went to volunteer for the second time at the refugee shelter of Berliner Stadtmission. As all the other students, they were really enthusiastic, willing to help and ready to perform any kind of activity they were asked to do. The girls were always smiley and really happy about the fact they knew they were doing something helpful for people who deserve this kind of help. The situation in which volunteers handed the plates full of food to the shelter’s residents is always as meaningful as difficult to forget. It is actually a moment in which there’s a deep exchange between the two people, rich of smiles and generosity. Also, although Berliner Stadtmission has – in comparison to shelters that are more in the outskirts of the city – a high number of volunteers, all the guys working there were really pleased by the presence of more, young and international volunteers.
“The city of Berlin is so full of opportunities for volunteering as well as realities to get to know, that probably anyone should spend some time in this city while dealing with various and meaningful projects.”
We hope and guess that this experience has given a lot to everyone. First of all, to the people in need, from refugees to kids, always open to meet new people to play or talk with. Second, to the organisations, always seeking for new volunteers willing to help and support their projects. Third, to the students themselves, that had a really great opportunity to get in contact with so many different realities that not every city offers. The city of Berlin is so full of opportunities for volunteering as well as realities to get to know, that probably anyone should spend some time in this city while dealing with various and meaningful projects. Also universities should follow what the Hogeschool van Amsterdam did, giving their students the chance to travel, to get away from their comfort zone for a short period of time and, last but not least, to have the opportunity to personally grow while improving our society.
About the programme
Since the birth of vostel.de, the amount of possibilities to deal with meaningful projects for Berlin’s tourists, expats, old and new residents has positively increased. Thanks to the big interest towards volunteering experiences as well as towards significant ways to get involved in the city, vostel is now able to constantly provide people with more opportunities to get engaged with Berlin and its inhabitants.
Among these opportunities, student volunteering is also the newest one. It helped in increasing the vostel community, making it bigger, more international and more involved. Specifically, student volunteering is focused on the organisation of study trips that also include short or longer volunteering experiences within the visited city.