Off to Do Good Deeds – Young People and Volunteer Work
When Thomas Heitz came down with dengue fever, his volunteer work became for him a physical and mental torture. Thanks to his training as a nurse, he knew that the disease could cause internal bleeding. Alone and feverish, he lay in bed in India. In a country that didn’t know what to make of him. In a country that he didn’t know what to make of. He was more tormented by homesickness than by his illness. His family, his friends, his hometown in Germany – everything he knew and loved was far away in another continent. Should he abandon his hitherto most demanding volunteer work and fly home?
Thomas is surely an extreme case. As early as the third grade, he already began to engage himself in volunteer work. “I grew up with it. My whole family is active – especially in the church community. It was quite clear that I’d also get into volunteer work”, says the 24 year-old. He started as an altar boy and soon joined the Boy Scouts. Then he became active in the Kolping Youth, played saxophone in an orchestra and finally also became engaged in the Federation of German Catholic Youth. Everywhere and more and more he took up the position of group leader. “I increasingly asked myself why I’m doing this at all”, says Thomas. “And I saw one meaning in it: It’s about making a difference”.
Volunteer work holds society together
Volunteer work holds German society together. About one in three Germans is engaged in his spare time in volunteer work in clubs, public facilities initiatives or churches. Without this host of volunteers, most sport and Carnival associations would not exist. Social projects at home and abroad would be impossible if there were no one that would do the work without demanding payment.
Last year Thomas decided to bundle together his multifarious commitments in a single project. In addition to his work as a children’s nurse in Ludwigshafen, he invested almost all his free time in various volunteer services. Although he has fun doing his volunteer work, he found that it was getting out of hand. Since he simply couldn’t say “No” to requests, it seemed that the basic presupposition for volunteer work, namely that it be voluntary, no longer applied in his case.
By chance, he heard that the Episcopal relief work Misereor was seeking volunteers for the street children project “Butterflies” in India. Thomas saw this as the right time to go. For one thing, he urgently needed a change in his life; for another, he had already heard a good deal about “Butterflies” and was “completely convinced by the idea”. He wanted to invest nine months of his life in a foreign country – despite having a safe job and a steady girlfriend at home. “Many people ask ‘When can I find time to do that?’ You have to take the time for it”, says Thomas of his momentous decision.
Hardly any time for good deeds
Not every volunteer worker is willing to give so much of himself. The number of volunteer workers has declined in recent years, especially among teenagers and young adults. The reason repeatedly adduced for this is the shortened high-school years and the introduction of the bachelor program at universities.
According to a current study by the Bertelsmann Foundation, 51 percent of school pupils that take their high-school diploma after nine years become active in voluntary work. Among pupils that take their high-school diploma after only eight years, the figure is only 31 percent. The degree of commitment to voluntary work generally corresponds to the degree of education. Due to increasing pressure to perform, the younger part of the population hardly has any time for good deeds.
The need to help others
Why are people willing at all to help others unselfishly? Sociology sees the impetus to voluntary work in the need to shape society, to help others and to spend one’s free time with others. Public recognition also plays a role. Although voluntary work often appears to be selfless, on this view it is not entirely so.
Voluntary work has shaped his personality, says Thomas. “Because you’re constantly faced by new challenges, you especially need to have certain qualities: empathy, a capacity for teamwork and creativity.” In India, Thomas drove with the mobile health bus through the streets of Delhi so as to help street children with his medical knowledge. He cared for their cuts and dog bites and distributed medicine to his little patients, who often shy away from a trip to the hospital. He found the work fulfilling.
In the end, Thomas stayed. He succeeded in settling in, finding friends, feeling at ease. Having learned the native language, Hindi, he can now laugh with the street children. He did not have to force himself to continue his work. On the contrary, he bore in mind the principle of voluntariness. “I set myself a limit”, Thomas says. “And resolved: if it’s not going well for me in two months, then I’m leaving.” He extended his service for another six weeks.
The author is a freelance journalist (science, religion, the social issues) and an online editor based in Munich.
Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
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