My Experience as an American Volunteering in Heidelberg

I recently submitted a letter to the editor of the local newspaper, the Rhein-Neckar Zeitung, detailing my various failed attempts at volunteering for charities in Heidelberg. Shortly after, I received an email from the editor, in which he suggested we turn the letter into a full article, for which he would interview me. I obliged. The letter appeared a few days later in the paper, as well as online.  Unfortunately, and yet somewhat expected, the article paints a different picture than that which I meant to convey. Surprisingly, the many of the comments that the article received were negative: Either I did not try hard enough to volunteer, or I had no skills to offer the charities, etc, or other ad hoc fallacies based on pure speculation.  In light of this, I decided to write about my experiences in detail, as well as what I meant to convey in my original letter to the editor.

The Story

Shortly after moving to Heidelberg, Germany, my girlfriend, Julia,  and I decided we wanted to volunteer in our free time. This was in 2014, before the so-called “refugee crisis”, but there were still many refugees in Germany at that point in time. I often think about how I can maximize my “good” output, and decided that helping refugees, especially children, with their integration into Germany society would be among the most effective uses of my time. 1)I think the most effective cause, to which one can contribute, is vegetarianism/veganism. There are many reasons for this: 1) Billions of animals are killed each year, most under terrible conditions. Since we know many of the animals we are talking about feel pain and enjoy experiences as we do, and that we do not need meat to survive, this is morally wrong and unjustifiable. 2) It takes more resources to feed animals than we get from the animal itself, contributing to hunger issues as well as water issues, since more water is required as well. 3) Meat production contributes more to global warming than cars do, so cutting down on meat would have a sizable, positive impact on one of the world’s other largest problems. I plan to discuss this issue in more depth in another post.

Julia and I went to the Asylarbeitskreis, an organization that helps refugees and explained we would help in any capacity we could, but that specifically we could be helpful in teaching children German or English, helping them with their school work, or providing after school supervision. If that was not available, we could do something else, too. The woman at the office said it sounded great, and she would contact us in a few days. Much to our surprise, we received an email a few days later saying that there was room for our (free!) help.

I went to next to Obdach e.V., a local homeless organization. Homelessness has always been a social problem that I could not wrap my head around. How could it be that in super rich societies like the United States and Germany that such a problem could exist? In Heidelberg, there are many homeless people, who are on the street every single day. There is one man with one leg who drags himself up and down the street with his hands for more than a full work day of hours and asks for change. I wanted to investigate how this could be and to help tackle this problem, so, I offered my services. I was accepted, although I was told they had no need at the time. I could visit a man who was in social housing and keep him company, if I wanted. I was not excited by the idea, as I thought I could have a much bigger effect, but I said yes. I was warned many times that the man was very strange and could not speak clearly, and I was told she understood if I did not want to meet him again. When I met with the man, it was even worse than she said: the man was drunk, smelled like it, could not speak clearly at all, repeated himself, and after our meeting called me 70 times in a row. I told the woman at Obdach that I did not want to meet him again and she understood.

After this, I did some small jobs, like helping to renovate an apartment for a man who lived in the high rent section of the city. He had lived there for 20 years and had smoked the walls yellow, so it was time to repaint them. Everything needed to be taken down and furniture needed to be cleaned and moved. I asked myself how this man was classified as homeless and what exactly I was doing there. It seemed like I got shoved into random jobs that were at best loosely related to the topic of homelessness, and that at most I was having an extremely tiny impact.

With these thoughts, I proposed that I write an article for the local homeless newspaper that Obdach put out four times a year, thinking this might have a larger impact and support homelessness more generally. The responsible party at the organization thought it was a good idea, and seemed excited about the topic, which argued to make the local library services free in Heidelberg, since the homeless have less access to culture if they have to pay for all of the good literature. I wrote the article and submitted it. I was promised it would appear in the next issue of the paper and that I would receive a copy. Months passed, and I received no other jobs to do, and was not notified that the article was in the paper.  I sent many unanswered messages and was eventually told that the editor of the paper was stubborn and did not want to publish the article. It was clear there was frustration between the woman with whom I spoke and the editor of the paper. I emailed the editor multiple times and received no response. Persistent and frustrated, I continued to email. Eventually, I received an email saying that he never got the article and asked me to send it again, which I did. He promised me it would appear in the next issue. Again, months went by and no article appeared. I wrote him again and received no answers. Like the previous time, I continued to email, not accepting silence. Eventually, I was told that they would no longer be printing the paper, so the article would never appear.

While this was going on, I also proactively asked if there was anything I could do for the website of the organization, and again my offer was accepted. I met with the man responsible for maintaining it, and we had a meeting about what needed to be done and made a plan. I was going to the United States to visit my family for a month, so we would start when I got back. We planned a meeting for my return. When I came to the second meeting, I was told that the site had already been redone – the work had been contracted out. After this and the other experiences, I had been with the organization for more than a year and had accomplished almost nothing. I decided I was done with Obdach e.V2)While all this was going on, I volunteered for the Deutsch-Amerikanisches Institut in Heidelberg, but only ended up getting called every Halloween and Easter to help run parties for kids. Something good, I suppose, but not really effective.

By this time, the refugee crisis was in full force. Thousands were sent to Heidelberg, as we have a large, newly-empty US Army base where they can seek refuge. What better time to contact the Asylarbeitskreis and offer again to help out? I never received a response from them. I also read online and heard from others that they were at capacity and could not make use of any extra effort.

I went to der Paritätische Forum, a group that helps interested volunteers find matches, and asked what I could do. I met with a woman who asked me about my interests, and we then proceeded to examine different charities and organizations to find potential matches.This was very efficient and a breath of fresh air after the slow, ineffective experiences I had previously dealt with. With the contact information of five or so organizations, I left the building re-energized and positive about the prospects. I contacted all five organizations and explained who I was, how I got their information, and how I thought I could help. The first said there were no opportunities. From the rest, I received no replies. I decided to give up.

About four months later, I received an email from one of the organizations, HD Ink, apologizing for it having taken so long. Would I like to come to a meeting with the other prospective helpers and learn about the organization and get the ball rolling? Sure. I went to the meeting: we tossed a ball around for 30 minutes and learned each other’s names. Then we had to make claims about each other’s personalities just based upon appearance to show how stereotypes are not always correct. We also were told to ask questions about how the organization functions, to see if our expectations matched the reality. It was all intended to be a fun ice-breaker. We filled out paperwork saying when we could start working, how many hours a week, what our skills were, etc. The organizer was happy with my application. I asked when we started, and she said something like “well, Easter is in a couple weeks, so we will start after that.”, almost implying that in two weeks time nothing could get done. Will it surprise you at this point, dear reader, to find out that I have received no message from them, months after Easter?

This time I really gave up and decided to write the letter to the editor of the newpaper, figuring that shining a light on this apparent problem might be the most effective thing I could do and also not having the energy to search for more institutions. Shouldn’t volunteering be easier than a job search?

Lessons Learned?

Summing up my experiences, I believe I have learned a few things. If not concretely, then at least I have some suspicions, which could be more deeply investigated. I do not know which apply to just the charities I contacted, which apply to Heidelberg, and which to Germany in general. Obviously I have a relatively small sample size, so take it for what it is worth:

  • The majority of people I was in contact with did not seem very motivated to do their jobs efficiently. Things moved slowly. Emails went unanswered. On that point:
  • Emailing probably is not the best method of reaching an institution, at least in Germany. I usually prefer it because I can express myself more clearly in German when I write in advance, but in hindsight I think I should have just knocked on the doors of the various charities.
  • There seems to be a crazy imbalance in the way jobs function in Germany, and the employer has the advantage. Most German students I have talked to have done multiple unpaid internships and often struggle even to get those. I know others who, despite having master’s degrees, have all but given up getting a normal paid position and are looking instead for “traineeships”, which are another source of cheap labor from the highly educated. But this is a broader point which I may expand in another post. This seems to extend to the charity sector, which is why I mention it here. In the US, whenever I have volunteered I have been accepted immediately and have done meaningful work.
  • Charities here do not seem to have the ability to “think outside of the box”. This may be due to legal considerations or may be simply the “we’ve always done things this way” sickness. Many people, including the head of der Paritätische Forum, the newspaper editor, and many others have told me that the problem is at the administrative level. The organizations do have a need, but they do not have the administrative resources to manage the volunteers. If this is the case, why not either: 1)let the volunteers do administrative work that is easy to delegate or 2) give out work that does not require much overhead? It seems like most people I came in contact with expected to pigeon-hole me into a role that already existed within the organization, instead of allowing me to do something new. If all of the roles were filled, well, then they did not need any more help. At a higher level, it is easy to see that a lot of help is needed with the refugee issue, for example. I have an friend in the US who recently went to the mayor of a city and asked if he could volunteer and help out. The mayor gave him a job and now he sits in on meetings and helps organize events to help promote the city. This seems unthinkable in Germany, and other Germans have echoed this opinion.
  • People’s interpretation of a situation conform to their pre-existing biases. This is probably the most frustrating observation of all, and something I plan to expand into its own post. As I stated in the beginning of this post, many people were critical of the article about the situation that was in the newspaper, saying that I must have been the problem. Maybe part of it is my problem. I do not mean to make the claim that I tried every day for two years to volunteer and it never worked out. I just wanted to make the claim that it is more difficult to volunteer than it should be, and that I probably was not alone with such problems.3)And it appears I am not the only one. I was contacted by a man who read the article who also had had similar experiences and who told me he would likely never volunteer again as a result of it. Regardless, many people do not want to take a look at themselves or their society and make a change. If they had read an article about a land far, far away, they would have overwhelmingly agreed that the system in Land X was dysfunctional and urgently needed changing. But when the article is closer to home, there cannot be a problem. It must have been my fault, since I, in this case, am the aspect “furthest thing away.” How can dysfunctional systems change under such a structure of thought?
  • Due to these experiences, I have thought about developing a website where people with a social need could be matched with volunteers, to avoid the problems which I’ve outlined. As an example, a refugee using the site could get matched with a person who could help them learn German, with their daily visits to government agencies, or what have you. The match would have nothing to do with an organization, and could be efficient, and content agnostic, meaning any need could be fulfilled by a willing volunteer. This would save the volunteer from finding an appropriate organization, signing non-disclosure agreements, waiting on emails, etc. Maybe such a site already exists. If you know of one, let me know.

Julia and I are moving to Berlin in a few months and I have a feeling things will be somewhat different there, or at least I hope it. Either way, I will eventually write about my experiences here. If you have any comments, I would be interested to hear from you.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. I think the most effective cause, to which one can contribute, is vegetarianism/veganism. There are many reasons for this: 1) Billions of animals are killed each year, most under terrible conditions. Since we know many of the animals we are talking about feel pain and enjoy experiences as we do, and that we do not need meat to survive, this is morally wrong and unjustifiable. 2) It takes more resources to feed animals than we get from the animal itself, contributing to hunger issues as well as water issues, since more water is required as well. 3) Meat production contributes more to global warming than cars do, so cutting down on meat would have a sizable, positive impact on one of the world’s other largest problems. I plan to discuss this issue in more depth in another post.
2. While all this was going on, I volunteered for the Deutsch-Amerikanisches Institut in Heidelberg, but only ended up getting called every Halloween and Easter to help run parties for kids. Something good, I suppose, but not really effective.
3. And it appears I am not the only one. I was contacted by a man who read the article who also had had similar experiences and who told me he would likely never volunteer again as a result of it.

One Comment

  1. Excellent article Devon. This is a reality I didn’t know existed in the world. People shouldn’t try hard to volunteer. People should volunteer when they want, without interviews. Keep trying. I know someone will recognise your availability someday (not to speak of your capabilities). I wish you good luck my friend.

    Reply

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