Brave Souls And Humble Beginnings - The History Of Modern Volunteering

You might be a veteran volunteer, or a noob just beginning to explore your volunteering options – either way, have you ever stopped to ponder the modern history of volunteering? Even if history has never been your “thing”, it’s interesting to discover the roots of something we might take for granted.

Imagine you live in a small village (or perhaps you DO actually live in a small village!). Imagine if a strong wind suddenly picks up out of nowhere and blows off some of your roof tiles, maybe blows a tree over in your garden, knocks over a wall – and generally creates a hell of a mess that you were unprepared for!

The wind storm dies down and you stand there looking at the damage, probably pretty angry and upset - and to your surprise, relief and pleasure, who should you see but your next-door-neighbour (who, you realise with embarrassment, you hardly know) who comes over bringing garbage bags, a broom, and a chainsaw to help you cut up your tree, and then helps you take the debris away. What a good thing to happen in our modern, selfish, no-time-for-anything world, right? It probably depends on where you live and what kind of neighbours you have, but most people can rely on at least one good soul showing up to help, people are just generally good like that. Of course, YOU are that good guy everyone else can rely on…

We know from history that pre-industrial societies relied much more strongly on the concept of altruism and helping out their neighbours – their very survival depended on it. Today in many nations, this mutual self-help is still vital for the survival of communities, especially in remote rural areas. A whole village might be needed to bring in harvests, to build homes for and care for the aged and the sick, or to build and maintain roads to and from villages and outposts. Then the 19th century and its era of mass industrialisation came thundering in. Bartering, exchange-of-services and communities working together were replaced by a money-based and almost “faceless” society, with distinct social classes who hardly ever met. Slowly, values such as community and solidarity were undermined.

Solidarity resurfaced in the early 20th century, when people had to come together to rebuild after the destruction and devastation of World War I. As an example – a mixed group of English, German, French and Swiss volunteers, some of them former soldiers and thus ex-“enemies”, volunteered to set to work together to rebuild a village near Verdun in France which had been completely destroyed in a battle that unbelievably cost more than a million lives. They put aside their differences and helped a community.

This probably wasn’t the first example of volunteering in the 20th century, but it was well documented for the era, and the news spread. From that very first international volunteer work camp sprang the first modern volunteer service movement, known as Service Civil International or S.C.I. Volunteering grew in leaps and bounds as offshoots of this movement, and kept expanding in the 1920s and 1930s. At the time volunteering developed in large part as a means of building friendships and forging working relationships among young people of many different European countries. The US quickly followed the trend during the Great Depression of the late 1920s, giving unemployed youngsters something useful to do, a bed and meals, and keeping them off the streets. Sadly, this positive volunteering spirit was often corrupted and torn away from its original internationalist and pacifist ideals in some totalitarian countries – for example, the Hitler Youth paramilitary movement styled itself as a youth labour brigade in pre-WWII Germany, when its leaders’ true intentions were not quite as benign.

When World War II struck, volunteering took the place of military subscription for conscientious objectors – and many volunteers of all ages endured bullying and scorn despite their efforts, as they were seen by some enlisted soldiers and their families as “cowards”. After the war and throughout the 1950s, young volunteers played an important part in the reconstruction of Europe and the establishment of cross-border relationships, in projects that ranged from rebuilding central Warsaw and many war-damaged villages in Western Europe, to construction of the Bratsvo-Edinstvo (Brotherhood and Unity) highway in former Yugoslavia.

Then along came the Cold War, which tried its hardest to suffocate the spirit of volunteering, and use it as a tool of competition between the powers. But some spirits just can’t be crushed, and thanks in part to UNESCO (created in 1948), volunteers from both sides of the Iron Curtain were actively engaged in breaking it down – even if just symbolically. International voluntary workcamps were set up in the former U.S.S.R., G.D.R and Hungary; which encouraged volunteers from the West to the East - AND vice-versa - and genuine exchanges of ideas were experienced between the two sides, instead of the usual propaganda. Genuine friendships were made and genuine progress happened. Thanks in part to these volunteer efforts, we know what eventually happened to the Berlin Wall…

In the developing world, colonialism gave birth to volunteer movements throughout Latin America, Asia and Africa. Some of them were so small and lacking in resources that they couldn't even afford postage stamps to recruit volunteers, and members delivered letters of invitation to potential student volunteers on foot! Some operations were more powerful: in 1960, high-school students formed a volunteer force that helped almost eliminate illiteracy in communist Cuba.

So, many of the first signs of what we could now consider “modern” volunteering among young people, happened in the ex-Socialist countries. They consisted of many non-profit, non-religious organisations, formed for the first time in history. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, we might consider volunteering in the former Eastern Bloc to have been an unpleasant experience, but many older people still recall their time as young volunteers in the East with fond nostalgia. Also, the dying gasps of colonialism have created a great deal of interest in volunteering in developing countries, often with the added benefit of experiencing a holiday in paradise while still being able to help communities out. Lastly, thanks to modern longevity and health, there has been a significant increase in the number of older retired professionals who are finding satisfaction and enrichment by offering their volunteering services. If you have an energetic Grandma – you might want to look at a programme that suits you both!

So remember, as a volunteer, you are not only helping out one tiny corner of the world one little step at a time – you are also a part of a long tradition of people whose combined efforts actually made the world a better place. 


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