Christian Richard Jones from Wales, the United Kingdom, was not afraid of prejudices and cold. Amazed by the beauty of the scenery in Russia during his several visits to the country, he wanted to learn more about the local culture and language. Through European Voluntary Service (EVS), he got the chance to volunteer at Kirov Physics and Mathematics Lyceum in Kirov, Russia, where he is now helping to organise language and physical education lessons.
Teaching is only one of the options for EVS, as volunteers can choose between environment, heritage, arts and culture, activities with children, young people or the elderly, and so on. The programs last from 2 weeks to 12 months.
In return for their work, the EVS gives young people housing, food, reimbursement for health insuranceas well as pocket money for travel and other expenses. The program involves about 7 000 young volunteers each year.
This year the European Voluntary Service celebrates its 20th anniversary. Established as a pilot project in 1996 and funded by the European Commission, the service continues to offer various forms of voluntary activities for European youth, both within and outside of the EU.
“So why Russia?” is also the question that Christian often hears. “My family was scared at first but now they see I’m okay and they support my decision to volunteer in Russia,” he tells YO! Mag.
Even more often, he gets asked his opinion on the United States. But Christian says the current political tensions between the West and Russia do not affect his experience in any way. “As I tend not to watch the news, politics is not my strong point and I don’t really have an interest in politics,” he adds.
However, there are of course differences in mentality and culture.
“The first cultural difference I was made aware of is that Russians always take their shoes off when entering their homes. In the UK, we only take our shoes off if asked to,” Christian says.
Also the educational structure at Russian schools came as a surprise.
“In the UK, as teachers we are given a timetable for the week and this is the schedule we follow. Here in Russia the teachers’ timetable can change fifteen minutes before a lesson,” he says. In spite of this instability, Christian likes working with his Russian colleagues at Kirov lyceum and appreciates their great help in improving his Russian.
He can only recall one negative experience during his time in Russia. “I have been verbally abused and this was when I was talking English to friends at café when I first arrived. Other than those incidents, people have been positive and grateful for what I am doing here,” he says.
While Russia seems to be a tempting place to carry out a voluntary service for young Europeans, also young Russians want to help the European community with voluntary work.
Since 2003, the “German-Russian Exchange” has organised its own program for young people from Russian-speaking countries (Russia, Belarus and Ukraine) and offers four volunteer positions in different non-profit institutions in Berlin. The volunteers work up to six months and participate in an extensive training program on the history, society, politics and culture of Germany.
According to Elena Stein, the exchange voluntary program coordinator, the program is so popular that they receive hundreds of applications. The main criteria of selection are willingness to plunge into the unfamiliar, motivation to work in the nonprofit sector and a good command of German.
One of the selected volunteers is Masha Mikhaylova from Russia who spent six months in Germany in 2014-2015, sponsored by the German-Russian-Exchange and the Marion-Dönhoff-Foundation. At the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum Secretariat, her main tasks were translation, helping with public relations and facilitating other exchange programs of the German-Russian Exchange.
The biggest and most challenging task for her was helping in the organisation of the fifth General Assembly of the Civil Society Forum in Tallinn, Estonia. Overall, the internship was a priceless experience that helped her grow both personally and professionally.
“I can now translate texts at a remarkable speed and enjoy it, whereas I had no particular interest in working as a written text translator before the voluntary program,” she tells YO! Mag.
Working with German colleagues was an interesting experience for her. Like many Russians she had some stereotypes about Germans, which broke down during her stay in Germany.
“I was sad to find out that not all Germans are 100% punctual,” Masha recalls. Also her attempts at making new friends in Germany failed dramatically because of the “unemotional and restrained” behaviour of Germans, she says.
“I know German people build amazing life-long friendships. It just takes time, maybe more time than I had in Berlin.”
She also noticed that Germans really love to work and try to show an absolute commitment to it.
“That was something new to me because my first work experience before Germany was at an office where a tea-drinking and conversation-loving culture was common,” she adds.
Overall she is very grateful for chance to be a volunteer in Berlin and to take her skills to a new level.
The open question remains: what makes these young people ready to work without a salary?
Masha says she might sound idealistic, but she believes that sometimes it is more important to get other things than money from doing your job.
“Volunteering gives me a chance to meet people from different countries I would have never met otherwise and often visit places I would have never been to otherwise,” she says.
As a translator she finds it crucially important to constantly practice and take her skills to a new level by working with new topics and target audiences. She thinks that volunteering often provides such an opportunity. It is also a way of inspiring other young people.
Masha often organises presentations about the importance of volunteering for young people and feels proud to be able to share her own volunteer stories and encourage others to take action.
“Hearing and answering their “How? When? What can I do?” questions is the best reward for my efforts.”
How to become an EVS volunteer?
The purpose of European Voluntary Service is personal, educational and professional development of young people between 18 and 30 years old through non-formal and informal education and experiences of mobility, solidarity, tolerance, active citizenship and mutual understanding among young people in Europe.
To find a volunteering position, visit the European database of accredited EVS organizations. The database contains general descriptions of the different projects but does not specify the duration, start and end times for hosting the volunteers. For all the details, you have to contact the host organization directly.
The EVS offers volunteering opportunities in 28 EU Member States, 3 EFTA/EEA Countries, Croatia, Switzerland and Turkey, as well as in Africa, Asia and Latin America. According to the Official Volunteer Abroad Trends Report 2014, the most popular destinations in Europe are Spain, Italy and France. The most searched countries outside Europe are The Philippines, India and Thailand.
For more information on the German-Russian-Exchange, visit the Exchange website, Facebook or Vkontakte (Russian “Facebook”). The main criteria of selection are interest in the working for nonprofit environment and social projects. The activities offered are not always directly related to the previous experience of the candidate, so that he or she can learn something new.
Yet work experience in the non-profit sector or participation in social projects is an asset in the application process. A good command in German language is required.
All photos by Masha Mikhaylova