by Gracia Kleijnen
This year I started doing volunteering activities for vostel.de. These were all one-time events, although you can of course always participate and help out more often if the event is recurring and you enjoyed or found meaning in it. In total I participated in four volunteering events throughout this year. In a previous blog post I wrote about my experiences regarding the first two. Below you will get a glimpse of the other two.
This is an ongoing project of the Berliner Obdachlosen e.V. taking place each Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday with a different route (you can inscribe yourself for the shifts on vostel.de). For one day I helped out in the kitchen, cleaning and cutting large amounts of foods in preparation for bulk cooking, while the front room was being used to prepare sandwiches and for sorting out clothes. Both the front room and the kitchen were fully packed with people.
“The beauty of this project is that anyone is encouraged and welcome to come help out. You are also free to come and go at whatever time suits you.”
The beauty of this project is that anyone is encouraged and welcome to come help out. You are also free to come and go at whatever time suits you. Some people joined for an hour or two, then left. Others stayed the entire day. A bright mix of individuals walked in and out of the venue. Before I knew it, the afternoon had flown by. I was eager to join the tour as well and interact with the humans dropping by for a meal.
Three different locations were visited. At each location we were very expected: upon arrival a large group of people had already gathered there and patiently stepped into a queue as we were unpacking the contents of the van.
What stood out to me was how well-organised the tour was. The same as in the kitchen counts here: come and go to help out whenever it suits you. You are always happily welcomed by all parties, and provided with instructions and the supplies you need to help out.
“When I saw the long queue at Alexanderplatz, a thought ran through my mind. How I wished the tour didn’t need to exist at all.”
I learned that some people had a home, but are struggling with their finances to such an extent that they have come to rely on the tour for their meal. According to the note on the door of the Berliner Obdachlosenhilfe e.V. I spotted during my last visit, not a single tour was missed for the last two years. When I saw the long queue at Alexanderplatz, a thought ran through my mind. How I wished the tour didn’t need to exist at all. Until then, the organisation will continue to be there for people who need it.
First things first: a briefing beforehand on the dos and don’ts of interaction. After this briefing we could ask questions to the DBSV (Deutscher Blinden- und Sehbehindertenverband) and saw a demo of how you’d typically guide a blind or visually impaired person.
“During the briefing I noticed I was continuously looking the speaker in the eye and nodding, even though these visual cues could not be noticed by him.”
Not only that: we also were sent home with a summary of how-to’s and a larger booklet with extra information. During the briefing I noticed I was continuously looking the speaker in the eye and nodding, even though these visual cues could not be noticed by him.
He shared with us rule number one: verbalize everything. Use e.g. clockwise notation (or degrees) when describing which direction to walk into. It is also important not to touch a person out of respect for his or her personal freedom and space. If you feel like you must, ask if this is okay beforehand. Use words.
“This experience opened up a whole new world for me and taught me basic skills which I can forever use when I meet a blind or visually impaired person at any point in future.”
During the buffet I noticed I am so extremely used to visual cues that the adjusting to verbalizing didn’t immediately go perfect. I did so as well as I could. I kept trying to nod and waited for a response, but that is not always how it works! This experience opened up a whole new world for me and taught me basic skills which I can forever use when I meet a blind or visually impaired person at any point in future. It also made me stop for a moment to think about accessibility in general: in public transport, when eating, but also when accessing websites.
To be very honest, I had been putting off volunteering with the different groups because I was also scared. Scared to be confronted with realities some people deal with on a daily basis, or inevitable outcomes of life I find difficult to accept. Scared to be emotionally impacted by what I could potentially encounter during these activities. In the end, it is much scarier inside your own head than in real life.
“Go dangle that leg outside of your comfort zone and try out something different.”
You are dealing with people. They will not eat you up and they know you’re there to help out. Some might be more receptive of you than others. That is fine. Step in with an open mind, be flexible, be patient, and give without any expectation. Your effort and time is needed and appreciated. Go dangle that leg outside of your comfort zone and try out something different. You will be enriched with a new experience and maybe learn something that will be useful and applicable anywhere in future. Who knows you find your calling in an unexpected corner of life.
To round off this post,
here’s my tips for first-time volunteers:
- If you sign up for a project via vostel.de, they will send you a briefing. Make sure to read it through, as it will contain important information for the project you’ll help out at.
- Show up on time (‘be pünktlich’) so you don’t miss the introduction, no one has to wait for you and so that you will not jeopardize the day planning.
- Have an open mind.
- Be flexible. In case an activity has to be reorganised and you end up helping out at a different activity than you signed up for, be open to this too. Everyone is doing their best.
- Have patience, with the people you’re working for, and with.
If this post sparked your curiosity, have a look at their website and explore the projects in your area.
Sign up, have a go at it, and above all, have fun!
Gracia is a ‘Wahlberlinerin’ and parttime cat lady who lived in different cities across the Netherlands, and in Western Germany, the UK and China. When she’s not tackling activities on her bucket list, she likes to go on spontaneous ‘bitpacking’ trips, learn new languages and take classes at the local dance studio.