If you want to volunteer in Germany, depending on the sector you wish to volunteer in and the length of time you'd like to volunteer for, your options are varied. Both German citizens and foreigners from EU and non EU states can participate in the Voluntary Social Year (Freiwilliges Soziales Jahr or FSJ) which is a government-funded program that allows participants to volunteer in either Germany's social sector, or that of a foreign country, for 12 to 18 months. There is also the Voluntary Ecological Year (Freiwilliges Ökologisches Jahr) which is run according to the precise same regulations as the FSJ, but volunteers work in the environmental sector in Germany or abroad. Both programs enable volunteers to learn more about a possible vocation, are limited to eighteen months (24 months in special cases) and are open to school finishers up until the age of 27.
Which of course begs the questions – what if my reasons for volunteering are not solely to find a vocation? What if I'm over 27? What if I want to volunteer for a period of time that exceeds eighteen months? Perhaps you're after something more flexible, or part time, or in positions outside of the social and environmental sectors. Options abound for those looking to volunteer in Germany, both as a German citizen, EU citizen, or non-EU citizen, through a variety of organisations. You just need to know where to look.
Starting the search
If you already live in Germany and want to volunteer in your adopted city, there are several ways you can get information on what's available to you. Ask the city itself. Visit the Rathaus (city hall) and ask who you can speak to about volunteer options in your city. Do a Google search for 'Vereine' in your area. Vereine are registered voluntary associations that could point you in the right direction of a volunteer placement or organization. Or, you can check to see if your city has a Freiwilligenmesse – a volunteer exhibition – where you can speak to organizations looking for volunteers and gather more information. Several cities host an annual Frewilligenmesse, including Berlin (it's on April 5th in 2014), München, and Nürnberg.
Volunteering through a church organisation is another option. You can speak to your local church's office directly about what opportunities they may have, or go online and search for organisations related to your particular diocese. The Catholic Church, for example, has Caritas (http://www.caritas-germany.org/) and the Lutheran Church is behind Aktionsgemeinschaft Dienst für den Frieden e.V. (http://friedensdienst.de/). Mandy, an American who lives in Bamberg and volunteers for several programs, including Menschen in Not, a homeless shelter, even spoke to her tourist office; ''Asking around helps too. For example, as part of my orientation course I did a city tour. Realizing that I knew pretty much everything the guide told us, I am reaching out to the tourist office to see how one becomes a volunteer tour guide (as ours was) in English.''
If you're worried your German skills may inhibit your options, in many cases only the bare minimum is needed. This is of course something to discuss with the organization you are volunteering with, who may or may not be concerned with your German. The flip side of volunteering with limited German, of course, means it provides an avenue for improving your language skills.
Mandy began volunteering with no German and went the 'hands and feet route' when it came to communicating with clients. ''(For) the most basic tasks—making and serving coffee or tea—those words are necessary, (and with) serving cakes or pastries, I got by my first few months by bringing out a tray and having clients point at what they wanted. Most board games that I played with clients I could get by as I knew the game anyway. If I was really lost, I could find someone who could translate for me. A few of the clients, as well as the director speak English very well. For the most part, it (English) isn't necessary. That said, working there really helped my German, if only because I would hear it for several hours a day in a stretch.''
If you are looking to come to Germany as a volunteer, it's worth exploring the option of doing it through a program that works in cooperation with your home country. Action Reconciliation Service for Peace, for example, is an American peace organisation which, for the past fifty years ''has been committed to working toward reconciliation and peace, as well as fighting racism, discrimination, and social exclusion.'' It has offered volunteer placements in Germany since 1995, through its International Volunteer Program. Today, it offers around 20 volunteer placements for a year in Germany, to those with an interest in the issues of racism and anti-Semitism, in areas such as the Berlin Jewish community, refugee organisations and programs for people with disabilities. A prerequisite of the placement is a basic knowledge of German.
The UK organisation UK German Connection puts UK citizens in touch with other organisations that have volunteer programs happening in Germany, like the Red Cross and Friends of Waldorf Education.
As with undertaking any sort of work in Germany, whether it be paid or voluntary, you need to know what legal documents you require to be there. If you are an EU citizen, you can live and volunteer freely in Germany, needing only to register your German residential address. As a citizen of a non-EU member state, you will require a visa that permits you to reside in Germany for the duration of your placement and be able to financially support yourself. If you are in Germany as an accompanying spouse, double check what your particular visa allows. If in doubt, ask your local Foreigner's Office (Ausländeramt).
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