In history, in Europe, and in my personal experience
What exactly means volunteering? This could seem a simple question or a topic that does not offer too much to talk about. That is because in the last years the number of people who are in some way involved in a volunteering activity have been constantly increasing. In Italy, all the people I personally know have been a volunteer at least one time in their life. Most of all, I think that the youngest generation is more aware of the importance of this type of experience, also because is really interested in being useful for others and for the society and is generally open-minded and politically active.
In history people have always tried to help each other and to find a way to live a better life. And this way was often the mutual support and help. People used to help others because, I think, that is an instinct of human being. But also, there were (and there are) other additional reasons, such as the religion, some philanthropic attitude, or also, unfortunately, the intention to create a good self-image in the eyes of society. In general, a definition could be that “volunteering is a voluntary act of an individual or group freely giving time and labour for community service.” And this definition works for every type of volunteers in all historical periods. But some aspects and aims, as well as also the structures and forms of organisation are changed throughout the decades.
First, in the conventional Middle Ages period, there was a great welfarism, most of all connected with religious organisation. Using of the word ‘volunteering’ is first traceable to the 17th century but started being used in the 18th century when people were willingly joining the military service. The organized volunteering as we know it today starts with the great wars when young people, and especially women, would organize to help wounded soldiers and to collect supplies. The officially organized volunteering started in the 19th, and some of the organizations are active even today. One of the first and most famous humanitarian organizations in the world is the Red Cross. To the present day, in the European context, the reality of volunteering is strong, organized and developed: Europe institutions want to improve the volunteering system and to sensibilize young people about volunteering. Now, we have so many platforms and opportunity that it is not easy to choose one!
The history and contextual background of volunteering in Europe varies between European countries. Some EU Member States have longstanding traditions in volunteering and well-developed voluntary sectors, in other countries the voluntary sector is still emerging or poorly developed. A turning point for most EU countries has been the crisis of the welfare state. Because of the growing difficulties of public authorities to respond to the needs of society, a new wave of organisations appeared on the scene. Most of time in history and still today, the volunteering organisation and projects have a leading role in humanitarian intervention and social support, thus compensating for the shortcomings of the state system. This is not a positive aspect of volunteering, because if in some sectors of the society a lot of volunteering activities are needed, it means that there is something that is not working in that country and people need a help or an opportunity that their governments is not interested or able to give to them. At the same time, for this very reason volunteering is an extremely important phenomenon and a positive hint in those country where there are a lot of volunteers, because it means that people want to be proactive in their society.
In some EU countries, the highest levels of volunteering are detected among adults aged 30 to 50 years. And in a considerable number of countries young people and young adults have the highest level of volunteering. But, in some EU Member States young people are the least active group in terms of participation in volunteering. In recent years however, there has been a revival in the number of young volunteers, attributed to different factors.
Based on some European research, the most reported sectors in which volunteers are active are
- social, welfare and health activities
- religious organisations
- recreation and leisure
- education, training, and research.
And the type of activities ranges from supporting and administrative task to directly helping people in needs, from the organisation of events to learning some more practical work such gardening. According to the European Volunteer Centre, volunteering offers many different social, economic, and cultural benefits, because allow people to improve their skills and so their self-esteem, reduce the risk of social isolation, create a people network and facilitate the integration of socially disadvantaged individuals, etc.
Personally, I have always believed in the strength of volunteering, and I have always tried to find different kind of activities with the local organisations that work in my community. One of the first benefit of volunteering for me is the sense of usefulness, which responds to my desire to help other people. But that is not all: with volunteering I learned many things, I met different and wonderful people, I broadened my horizons and learned to look at the world with different eyes. In my country and in my experience, volunteering has also become an opportunity to sensitise young people to become responsible citizens and to respond to the needs of the more vulnerable ones, as well as the needs of their communities as a whole.
This enormous influence that volunteering can have on local communities is an important aspect of the European volunteering world, because create active citizen aware of their environment and so able to contribute to find solutions to the challenges faced by their countries, working on the social cohesion, integration, and solidarity.
Finally, for all these reasons the countries should invest on better infostructure and national agencies to coordinate and cooperate better with all the volunteering organizations present in the local areas. I believe in the wonderful opportunity that volunteering can be for young people. They must be stimulated to volunteer, because I think it is one of the best way to find their own way, to learn more about life and other culture, to achieve new skills being at the same time useful for others and for the entire community. They can achieve more awareness of our world and learn how to act to try to make it better.
If from the older people and volunteers we must learn a lot, we, young people, have fresh energies and ideas that must be used. And volunteering is a good way to use them. For our own personal growth and for our world community.
article by Beatrice Colnaghi