Let the investment bankers amongst you weep! Last week, in Malta, I put €10 in the collection plate – it was a special collection for environmental refugees. Not ten minutes later, walking up the street after mass, I spotted €20 in the corner of a step, nestling amidst the remnants of Saturday night’s partying. What a return, eh? You give, you get, someone said, when I told them of my good fortune. And that got me thinking…
Way back when, before the industrial revolution, before money became our god, and urbanisation made strangers of us all, volunteering was second nature. We gave – we gave of our time, our skills, our energy. We shared – we shared our food, our homes, our experiences. Clothes were passed on, tools were borrowed, and lives were intertwined. Whole communities survived with the helping hands of neighbours. Harvests were brought in, homes were built, roads were repaired, children were minded, the sick were cared for – we looked out for each other.
Volunteerism stakes a place
In 1920, shortly after WWI, a group of Austrian, English, French, German, and Swiss volunteers – some of whom had fought on opposite sides in the War – began to rebuild a village near Verdun. And thus the first modern volunteer movement was born: the French Service Civil International (SCI). Many more followed and soon volunteering was once again playing a significant part in contemporary life. Organisations like the US Peace Corps, or Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) offered great opportunities for going abroad to ‘help out’. In Ireland, growing up, we talked of ‘going on the missions’ – not in a religious context – but to help out in Africa. There were bake sales and book sales, poker classics and whist drives, table quizzes and raffles, with all proceeds going to someone’s sister or brother, uncle or aunt, who was out on the missions, volunteering.
Those who stayed at home were involved in youth clubs and Scout groups. They volunteered at the hospice and the hospital, the children’s home and the old folk’s home. They coached football, taught adult literacy, got involved in home-help scheme and respite programmes. The community pulled together and worked as one. We may not have been as well off materially, but in other, far more important ways, we were rich beyond measure.
Commercialism creeps in
One night, as we were all sleeping the sleep of the just, commercialism crept in. Suddenly those 12-month voluntary posts overseas were reserved for professionals – for doctors, nurses, nutritionists, engineers and the like. The rest of us, although willing to serve our time for the betterment of mankind and, if truth be told, for the betterment of ourselves, were asked to pay for the experience. Up front. Now, don’t get me wrong: I have no problem at all with paying my way to get to wherever, but to pay to stay there and volunteer? There is something not quite right with that picture.
At home, governments began to regulate every ounce of community spirit out of us. With restrictive health and safety regulations, background checks, and a leporine multiplication of forms to be filled to hold any position in a voluntary capacity, suddenly volunteering simply wasn’t worth the effort. But hey, all was not lost. We had money. We could help out by donating cold hard cash instead of our time, skills, and experience. Not quite the same admittedly, but if we had a conscience to salve, then cash was the balm to hand.
But gradually, once again, this avenue, too, became the stomping ground of the professionals – this time, the professional money-makers: those who could afford to shell out big bucks for charity dinners; who could afford to bid extravagantly at charity auctions; who had the wherewithal to be charitable.
But what of the rest of us? Where do we fit?
Much an all as I enjoy living in Budapest, I miss that sense of community. That sense of knowing I’m contributing to making my city a better place. That sense of giving. That sense of belonging that only really comes when you’re actively contributing to where you live. So if your Hungarian is as abysmal as mine, and you’re not in a position to pull up a chair to the charity fundraising table, what options are there to volunteer, to help out? The British Women’s Association requires you to have a British passport. The North American Women’s Association is for women from North America. The International Women’s Association, well you have to be female. But there’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon: the Irish Hungarian Business Circle (IHBC) is working to reignite that community spirit here in Budapest by supporting people in their fund-raising activities, not matter how small, and by identifying opportunities for all of us to donate our time and skills to community-based projects rather than just our money.
A healthy social life is found only when, in the mirror of each soul, the whole community finds its reflection, and when in the whole community, the virtue of each one is living.
Rudolf Steiner, Austrian philosopher and scientist
First published in the Budapest Times 13 September 2010