The importance of being a volunteer

  • 2011-03-31
  • By Sam Logger

GETTING INVOLVED: Volunteering is a popular way for young people to improve their personal, educational and professional development.

RIGA - Many young people decide to start their careers as volunteers to gain essential skills for the future and to develop their worldly understanding. To promote this activity, 2011 is being called the European Year of Volunteering. What are the basic necessities for a person to become a part of this global volunteer system? And is it really a popular type of employment today?
There are lots of questions on this topic, as the voluntary work, in terms of self-actualization, has helped many youngsters determine tomorrow’s goals or acquire new abilities and talents. What is more important is a desire to change the environment around us, which has made people more interested in various aspects of volunteering. There are two aspects to volunteering which stand out in Latvia – European voluntary work services, which unite young people aged 18 to 30, and domestic institutions’ services, which allow anyone who is interested in the local community outline a completely different direction in life.

To identify the most important characteristics of the voluntary work, the TBT spoke with people who are involved in this field on a daily basis. The chairwoman of the organization ‘Youth against AIDS,’ Lauma Briviba, the desk officer of the communication department at ‘Agency for International Programs for Youth,’ Marita Kroica, the chairwoman of the enterprise ‘Jusu Agentura,’ Eva Savale- Gavare, the project manager and volunteer coordinator for the organization ‘Eiropas kustiba Latvija,’ Kristine Gailite, the representative of NGO ‘Dream Foundation Latvija,’ Liza Nabatova, and the volunteers Edite Snepste, Girts Baranovskis and Raul Martin were invited to express their views.

Generally speaking

According to statistics, the number of interested youngsters in European voluntary work is steadily increasing. The entrepreneur Eva Savale- Gavare admits that the new people are more likely to be taken as voluntary trainees today than ever before. This makes the situation in the volunteering field look inspiring.

The homepage of the European Voluntary Service (EVS) states that volunteering is a benevolent process which lets the youngsters “improve their personal, educational and professional development.” This introductory section of the page links with the ideas of NGOs which participate in this program. Lauma Briviba claims that the meaning of EVS is the “opportunity to grow” in every field of one’s personality. This statement is portrayed in the thoughts of Kristine Gailite and Girts Baranovkis as well. So, this may really be the reason why volunteering is such a success story.

Some approaches to volunteering are now implemented in the Latvian environment. Back in 2010, the president of Latvia, Valdis Zatlers, signed an initiative to encourage the young to become volunteers and to gain priceless work experience for a future profession. “It is the best time for us to take practical steps in the direction of progress of balanced and beneficial Latvia,” the letter says. And, obviously, this initiative is fruitful – one of the leading job portals,, offers volunteer positions in NGOs, government institutions and private companies. Placements vary from pedagogy to IT specialities. Liza Nabatova outlines that nowadays volunteer work is supported by local organizations and international affiliates.

The role of a volunteer

The meaning of a good volunteer is actually very simple. It is people who are willing to work and are always welcome to bring additional value to an organization’s work. Thus, everyone who considers volunteering as a comfortable vacation is wrong. “It is a full-time job,” says Marita Kroica about the included programs in EVS. Indeed, the perfect volunteers are found amongst people who understand the significance of ‘work.” Thereby the volunteers are able to generate ideas, take responsibility, and stimulate creativity. These qualities are significant at both the European and local level.

“The entrepreneur gets extra hands. The trainee gets a realistic insight into things and a chance to do, try and prove himself,” Eva Savale- Gavare says, pointing out other advantages of volunteering. It is a bilateral agreement, and both sides hope that the goals will be achieved in the best possible way. Unfortunately, this contract does not always work superbly. There is a risk in domestic volunteering all the time, and the main concern is in reliability. “You have to be prepared that trainees can come and go without prior notice,” Savale- Gavare indicates. Luckily, there is a very small number of runaways. It clearly shows the dedication of the volunteers.

This bilateral agreement is not just an organization’s responsibility. Nabatova recommends researching volunteering possibilities in the local area before actual participation. “The volunteer has to analyze carefully what the organization offers, its specificity, and also what it expects from the volunteer. It is important for one side to receive exactly what the other side can deliver,” she explains. Every volunteer can find something that suits their interests, starting from a human rights’ protector, to a music workshop’s director.

I want to be useful

Still, there are other factors that must be taken into consideration, too. One of the most crucial factors is personality. Nowadays it is often said that motivation is the key value for a person’s assessment. Undoubtedly, organizations which evaluate a person’s suitability for any work really do pay attention to this value. “Some people think that everything will be done for them,” Girts Baranovkis says, and this shows a bad example of their motivation. Organizations want their volunteers to be active and creative, and the more the better. The opportunity to be useful for someone is the basic platform to start building motivation.

EVS volunteering is not a typical cultural exchange program. “Apart from the likes of Erasmus, which offer a superficial insight on a particular country, EVS digs deeper,” reckons Raul Martin from Spain, who currently volunteers in Latvia. It is a great chance to melt into the society itself, becoming a part of it and breaking the walls of the host-guest relation.
Of course, voluntary work is a non-paid job. However, this is the feature which makes volunteering even more fascinating. “It is a completely different feeling,” says Briviba describing voluntary work. The gratification level is high, and seemingly the phrase “thank you,” in this case, provides an eternal self-confidence. “You can positively affect other people’s lives,” adds Nabatova. Voluntary work is never time-consuming, as it is done to make the world better and people within it happier.

Snepste is a volunteer with four years of experience. In this period she has participated in various domestic projects as a member of youth organizations, such as ‘Tellus,’ and her faculty’s Student Council. “At the beginning I was interested in the atmosphere and staff of the organization, but now I appraise the opportunities the voluntary work gives – meeting people, finding new friends and allies, fulfilling ideas and dreams, growing and developing,” she says. Apart from that, it is a real life practice, a chance to test the strong and weak points.

Obviously, this usefulness is everybody’s gain. Surprisingly, a lot of youngsters decide to volunteer abroad, not because of the great possibilities to help others, but to help themselves. “My motivation to volunteer was the desire to adjust myself,” says Baranovkis, who volunteered in Romania. Indeed, the youth finds it difficult to detect the main goals for the future. “This is where EVS volunteering can really step in,” Gailite says as she draws attention to the growing interest from last year’s high school students. She also states that voluntary work shows real freedom, which is so glorified by youngsters, and participants will learn to plan their individual budget, to cook and do their own laundry. Thus, the freedom is, more likely, their first step to learn to live.

Home and away

The benefits of European voluntary work are intriguing. The volunteers get not only a Youth Pass, which indicates their contribution to the program on the European level, but a lifetime experience, too. However, the possibility to go abroad is a key option that attracts youth. Kroica reveals that the target places for Latvian youngsters are the warm countries, particularly Spain. Briviba confirms this statement, noting that Latvians are very interested in exotic destinations. On the other hand, volunteers from these warm countries decide to volunteer in Latvia. Hence, there we can find the most rewarding benefit in the European volunteering space – global interaction. In such a cultural correlation the winner is everyone: the hosting, sending and coordinating organization, the volunteer, and the respective community.

One of the myths around voluntary work in Europe is insecurity, both physical and mental. The physical insecurity very often involves the volunteer’s family, and questions – is it safe to go somewhere to work for nothing – are common. Fortunately, a solution for this problem is given. The European Voluntary Service provides a database where every prospective volunteer can clarify all the questions which depend on a selected country, organization and accreditation. This system makes the service very safe and trusted. Another way how to inspect the current voluntary work vacancies is the portal, which is funded by the European Commission and, thus, secures its credibility. This database shows many working possibilities, including volunteering in non-European areas, such as Africa and Asia.

But mental insecurity, for its part, deals with personality. The volunteer must always remember that, despite the fact of being completely prepared for this journey, there may be ups and downs all the time. The culture shock, homesickness and desire to quit are sometimes very hard to overcome, but the responsibility and commitment are the strong points that make it happen.
But is it easy to determine whether to volunteer in a local community or abroad? In this case the answer may be very clear – why not choose both? This is what Briviba suggests. Presumably, the volunteer must take this experience for granted, but the people who engage in this type of employment are then seen as the engine in community work. And it really serves as a lifelong commitment! Snepste, Baranovskis, and Martin advise to take this challenge of volunteer work as well. Today’s world gives many possibilities for self actualization and expression. This experience can really become a decisive point on a person’s future resume, which will be assessed by potential employers.

Overall, it can be said that volunteering starts to look like an attractive type of employment. The times when there was no information on this subject are no longer here. The Internet sums up all the essential data about it, and interested youngsters can easily attend various events to find out something more. Nabatova points out that there is room for Latvia’s volunteering services to evolve, as it turns out to be a lot more demanded due to the economic situation, as it is difficult to get a paid job for the youngsters, but experience is asked for anyway. 

What is evident is that volunteering abroad may become more popular in the nearest future because of the activities supported by the European Union institutions, and also the local sending and coordinating organizations. This type of work helps for a global understanding, and basically it may be the reason why youngsters choose to have a try.

Still, there is place for a discussion as to whether voluntary work is really that necessary. Yes, it gives many options to understand a person’s values, but basically we cannot talk about a lucrative activity here. How can the involved institutions prove that the voluntary work helps in a person’s building process? There are many youngsters who consider only paid employment! Maybe it is possible to make the voluntary work obligatory for certain age groups for youth to understand the meaning of work and tolerance.

On the other hand – there will be people who will declare that volunteering is an individual process, and nobody can force a person to do something against their will. As the discussion continues, the activity surrounding voluntary work here in Latvia will continue to develop.