The German Voluntary Year

Interested in taking time out to develop new skills, meet interesting people and work on meaningful projects? Germany's Voluntary Year may be for you.
by Caitlan Reeg

Young people who have finished their compulsory studies are offered a great opportunity in Germany – they can work as a volunteer in sectors like social services, the environment and culture for a year while receiving financial and institutional support.

What is the German Voluntary Year?

Germany's Voluntary Year (Freiwilligenjahr)  is a period of time, generally six to 18 months, when 18- to 27-year-olds work full-time as volunteers.

The focus of the Voluntary Social Year (Freiwilliges Soziales Jahr or FSJ) is on social services. So a person may assist people with disabilities or help out at a nursing home. The Voluntary Ecological Year (Freiwilliges Ökologisches Jahr or FÖJ) deals with environmental education, conservation and protection. The Voluntary Social Year in Culture (Freiwilliges Soziales Jahr in der Kultur or FSJ Kultur)  is done in the field of culture.

What does one do as a Culture Volunteer?

Judith Gerstenkorn stumbled upon the idea of being a FSJ Kultur volunteer while researching alternatives to university studies. The 20-year-old grew up mostly in Tanzania but finished her last two years of high school at an international school in Hannover. She had planned to go directly to university and then changed her mind about what to study so she decided to take a year off to volunteer. The FSJ Kultur program sounded to her like an ideal fit.

“I thought, wait, this is the perfect combination of things that I love. I can get involved in society in a positive way and also use my creative skills,” she says.

Judith found a placement in the Events and Arts section of the Diakonie Himmelsthür, Hildesheim. The Diakonie Himmelsthür provides support to people with learning disabilities in a variety of areas of life. Judith worked on event planning for the region and with the artist group Die Wilderers. She organized discos and cinema nights for people on the Diakonie campus and set up workshops and exhibitions for Die Wilderers. She says it was an incredibly diverse job.

“I don't think I could have dreamed up an occupation like this one,” she says.

The position involved a lot more administrative work and less of the arts than she expected, but she thinks it was actually a blessing. She gained a lot of valuable insights into logistical and event planning, as well as administrative and managerial tasks.

What kind of support is provided?

FSJ Kultur volunteers receive a monthly allowance of at least 320 euros and take part in 25 education days. Travel costs, food and accommodation for the education days are covered, as well as social insurances during the year. The FSJ Kultur program also provides contacts during the year for any kinds of emergencies or other daily questions and issues.

Judith says the organizing agency for FSJ Kultur in Niedersachsen, LKJ Niedersachsen, was a great support. The education days were well organized, fun and always had a creative component like a poetry slam. She got the chance to share experiences with others her own age and make new connections.

She also appreciated the independence. Judith rented an apartment and learned how to budget her monthly pocket money, quickly realizing how soon 300 euros disappears when paying for transportation, food and other essentials.

Am I eligible? How do I apply?

Anyone who meets specific criteria can apply for the Germany Voluntary Year programs. The process is easiest for Germans and EU citizens but the initiative is also open to non EU citizens and residents of EU member states. You must be allowed to be in Germany during the voluntary service year, which usually requires either a visa or a residence permit. Sometimes the institution hosting the volunteer will help applicants secure the correct visa. Detailed information on requirements for the FSJ Kultur program can be accessed on its website.

Judith believes it was well worth taking a year off from her studies to work within a new community. Through her experience as an FSJ Kultur volunteer, she realized how important it is for her to be engaged in work that benefits society – an insight that will no doubt influence her choices for years to come.

by Caitlan Reeg