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Help! Volunteering in Berlin

Looking for righteous activities to devote your time to? We explored four opportunities in Berlin to exercise your inner do-gooder, from cuddling kitties to phoning up gran, and how to avoid volunteering scams.

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Photo by Marta Dominguez
Lending a hand isn’t as easy as you’d think: many volunteer programmes that purport to be English-friendly still involve great thickets of German; other organisations will tell you they simply don’t need any help at the moment. And let’s not forget the non-charity cases looking to wring free labour out of wannabe Good Samaritans. Fortunately, opportunities do abound if you know where to look. We did the legwork so you don’t have to, finding four good deeds any Berliner can do.
Swinging with the oldies Overcome your dancefloor shyness and German-language Angst… without the fear of anyone remembering your terrible moves! If you’ve got no rhythm and little-to-no German skills, busting a move with the regulars at the monthly Alzheimer-Tanzcafé could be right up your alley: most won’t notice your fumbling grammar or care about your stumbling feet anyway. Plus, it’s believed that music can help Alzheimer’s patients with memory recollection and self-rediscovery, and as a volunteer at the Tanzcafé you might get to witness the amazing effects first-hand. In a large, light-bathed room on the first floor of Kreuzberg’s Intercultural Family Center, a timid group of 12 or so sits around a long row of tables, helpers in tow. Opposite the door, three women behind a short wooden bar serve up coffee, tea and cake. Though some attendees are lively from the get-go (watch out for a certain toothless Don Juan who blows smooches to several ladies and shamelessly flirts with the female volunteers), most of the guests, dementia patients from local nursing homes with varying degrees of the condition, generally arrive in a state of glassy-eyed lethargy.
Watch out for a certain toothless Don Juan who shamelessly flirts with the female volunteers.
Don’t be fooled, though: once the music really starts pumping (Schlager to polka to Volkslieder), ears perk up and feet start tapping. As you shovel your last bit of torte into your mouth, a peppy woman wearing a large straw hat and feather boa bounds up behind a hunched woman in a multicoloured wig, squeezes her shoulders, whispers in her ear and they’re off! The dancefloor quickly fills with swinging seniors, most of them in costumes befitting today’s Karneval party. “It is noticeable after one or two songs,” says longtime volunteer Andrea Wutz. Their demeanors change… they can often sing along with song lyrics and are very proud of it!” One small elderly woman even had her memory so jogged that during the group goodbye song, she was transposed back to her long forgotten youth and burst into a chorus of “Taler, Taler du musst wandern!”, starting an impromptu round of the age-old German children’s game. Beware, the old adage “Move your feet, lose your seat” works in reverse here. If you move too slowly you’ll end up awkward and alone, a wallflower once again, left to sadly clap your hands and longingly scan the room for a dance partner. But even if you aren’t quick enough to snag an Opa-aged waltz whirler, help is always welcome for preparing refreshments, chatting with guests and cleaning up at the Tanzcafé. If you’re busy from 2-4pm the second Monday afternoon of every month, there’s good news: three other Alzheimer-Tanzcafés meet in Spandau, Schöneberg and Treptow on the last Friday, first Wednesday and first Monday of each month respectively. If you’re really looking to strip away the dancefloor trepidation, why not boogie down at all of them? CS Alzheimer-Gesellschaft Berlin e.V. | Tanzcafé, Interkulturelles Familienzentrum, Wilhelmstr. 115, Kreuzberg, U-Bhf Kochstr., www.alzheimer-berlin.de
Sprouts and salvation Stop by the American Church in Schöneberg on Friday evenings and help feed hungry Berliners – no baptism certificate required.
Don’t be too generous; the food has to feed around 60 families every Friday night.
When handing out food to the less fortunate, always stand behind the broccoli box. Why? Broccoli is the most popular vegetable, obviously. God help you if you’re placed behind the Brussels sprouts box though, or you will find yourself offering copious amounts of the greens to someone who’s shouting “nein… nein… NEIN!” But that’s all in an evening’s work at the American Church in Schöneberg. A bell chimes every Friday at 5pm to signal the start of the food drive with dozens of people standing in the foyer of the grand, old church on the corner of Dennewitzstraße. It’s as chilly inside as it is outside and the people trundle into the main church hall, taking shelter from the elements. Young men push tartan granny trolleys, old ladies use every bit of strength to carry their Lidl ‘bag for life’ and little children run around attempting to suppress the boredom caused by waiting in line. The clientele vary in appearance, and one can’t help question whether they all are genuinely needy. Church council president Karin von Rosen, who has been with the project since its launch in 2005, assures us, “They have to be needy. They have to be with the welfare services, so we see they’re signed up and they need food.” Attendees need to show papers to prove they are on Hartz-IV. If they don’t have papers, Von Rosen and the volunteers advise where to go in the district to apply. No papers means no food, so chancers of Berlin stay away; you can’t just turn up and cater your Friday night dinner party. Expel ideas of a traditional soup kitchen from your mind – this food drive only provides the ingredients. The project collects leftovers from local grocery stores that won’t make it past the weekend such as fruit, veg, bread and unexpectedly, flowers – no matter the meal, all dinner tables need a centrepiece. “It’s a cooperation that we began when the Berliner Tafel had severe financial problems and couldn’t continue the soup kitchens,” Von Rosen explains. As you stand behind your chosen box an elderly lady yells at her husband about how much food they need. She flashes a card with a two and a one scribbled on it: two adults’ and one child’s worth of food. Don’t be too generous; the food has to feed around 60 families every Friday night. “Some people do try to take more,” Von Rosen warns. “They only pay €1 per adult and the children eat for free. The euro helps to pay for the gas and the running costs that we have here in the church.” It’s the only foreign church in Berlin providing the service, so it brings a unique group of attendees. “When we started this project there were a lot more Turkish people attending, but the neighbourhood has changed a little bit. Now there are a lot of Slavic and Russian families.” However, this isn’t something you need Russian for, or even German… in fact, you don’t really need English, as long as you have a finger to point with. And as if giving out food weren’t fulfilling enough, you even have the chance to salvage your soul by gathering round in circle time and giving thanks to the big man above for providing the hands that feed. If you fancy trying your luck convincing people that Brussels sprouts are edible, drop by The American Church at 4:45pm any Friday night. AS The American Church in Berlin, Dennewitzplatz, Schöneberg, U-Bhf Bülowstr.
Miss Kitten Whether you want to capture cats or just cuddle them, Tierheim Berlin is the purrfect opportunity. And their most intrepid cat rescuer is looking for an heir… Renate Wesselhöfft is a cat-loving pensioner from Köpenick who, instead of snuggling up at home with her four kitties, prefers to race around Berlin in her 4×4 capturing strays. As an animal shelter volunteer, she receives tip-offs from the general public, then sets off bagging and caging the feral felines before bringing them back to the animal shelter for rehabilitation. Around 1000 alley cats are successfully nabbed and neutered every year in Berlin, of which this 75-year-old widow claims the lion’s share, racking up an impressive tally of 300 strays. Some days Wesselhöfft is out rescuing kitties for up to 10 hours, and during cat catching season – which, in case you didn’t know, runs from March to October – she’s “almost always on the road”, covering up to 3000km per month. Berlin, like many cities, has a stray cat problem: conservative estimates put the number at 10,000, and if they weren’t neutered we’d end up with an inverse Hitchcockian nightmare where cats (rather than birds) slowly take over the city. The retired chemist works in co-operation with Berlin’s Tierheim, the largest animal shelter in Europe. Their goal is to neuter, socialise and find a good home for all the cats. Wesselhöfft, who instigated several of the Tierheim’s cat rehabilitation schemes, is almost single-handedly responsible for keeping Berlin’s stray cat population down. She has never earned a penny from it, but after her last car broke down, the Tierheim rewarded her years of service with a new 4×4 so that she could resume her cat-catching mission. Wesselhöfft started her work back in the GDR after discovering a large group of sick cats and realising the extent of the problem: “It’s not a passion of mine, or a hobby, or because I can’t live without cats, but I’ve seen the misery. So I decided to find out how we can reduce it.” After doing this for 27 years, Wesselhöfft has witnessed her fair share of cat cruelty. “People throw stones, fire airguns or even set traps,” she explains. The animal shelter receives many injured cats, some needing legs to be amputated after being caught in traps “set by bird lovers”, she supposes. Even though she describes herself as “not somebody who can sit quietly on a sofa”, she readily confesses that it is physically demanding, exhausting work. Which is where you come in: the Tierheim needs volunteers, and Wesselhöfft is willing to pass on all her feline know-how to the right motorised person. However, if you haven’t got what it takes to be a cat catcher, there’s also a lot of less adventurous work to be done. There’s a cat socialisation scheme by which twinkle-fingered volunteers stroke cats for several hours a day to get them used to human contact and ultimately ready for adoption. And there’s also a ton of kitty slop houses that need to be, well, slopped out. So whatever your specific feline inclination, Berlin’s cat supremo is waiting for you, and even if your German’s not so hot, “the cats can learn English,” Wesselhöfft smiles. LA Tierheim Berlin | Hausvaterweg 39, Lichtenberg, S-Bhf Ahrensfelde, Tel 030 768 880
I just called to say… Brighten up a lonely person’s birthday and maybe even find a new Oma, all from the comfort of your living room. Do you feel a burning desire to help your fellow man, but really hate putting on trousers? Sitting on your couch and calling up elderly people to wish them a happy birthday could be your most painless way to rack up good deeds. Offered as a service through Germany’s Humanist Association (HVD), the Geburtstagsgratulanten programme recruits volunteers to call up members aged 65-plus and wish them a “Herzlichen Glückwunsch zum Geburtstag!” To start off you’ll get first-rate training in phone etiquette and (presumably) how to deal with grumpy, long-winded or senile seniors. As a birthday greeter you’ll have monthly meetings at HVD headquarters to get your list of assigned mature members, their birthdays and how many candles they’ll be blowing out. From there you are given free range to lock yourself into your apartment and not leave again until the next meeting, so long as you make those phone calls! With a current tally of nine volunteers in the program and roughly 1000 seniors to call a year, it might seem an overwhelming task. But veteran volunteer Heidi Kämpf, who’s been manning the phone since 2006, explains that the load isn’t too heavy to bear and the outcome is worth the effort. Her schedule this month covered February 6-11, with 19 Happy Birthdays to dole out. Though many of the phone calls last only a few minutes, just long enough to say your greeting and inquire about party plans, other conversations can last a half hour or longer. “You can tell very quickly whether the person is alone and doesn’t have anybody. If that is the case, we sometimes like to go visit them with a bouquet of flowers and some cake and have a nice Kaffeerunde,” explains volunteer coordinator Carmen Malling. The goal of the volunteers is essentially to make the birthday boy or girl feel special, like they aren’t so alone in a city of millions. And if you’re also feeling lonely and perhaps missing your Oma, volunteering at the Geburtstagsgratulanten programme might be a good way to find the surrogate German grandma of your dreams. CS Humanistischer Verband Deutschland Landesverband Berlin-Brandenburg e.V | Wallstr. 61-65, Mitte, U-Bhf Heinrich-Heine-Str., www.hvd-bb.de
Scam in Steglitz Don’t say we didn’t warn you: teaching Korean jet-setters the English lingo isn’t the most rewarding of volunteer jobs. Let’s clear one thing up, for starters. Advertisements that request volunteer help don’t necessarily mean a warranted project.
After a slightly awkward, multi-lingual introduction it’s clear they’re all well-off professionals classing themselves as charity cases to score free English tutoring.
Answering a request for a charity English teacher at a Korean church on the volunteer matching platform Gute-Tat.de (“good deed”) might just result in you dragging yourself out to Steglitz, only to be in awe of the magnificent 19th century villa belonging to your prospective ‘charity’ student. As you walk up the ornately carved wooden staircase, flashes of old world Berlin, lush furs and fancy dinner parties flicker through your mind. Free education for the owner? Charity might start at home, but this feels like a step too far. Instantly the door flings opens and a small Korean woman beckons you in and offers you a pair of slippers as she puts on tea to boil. After some friendly small talk you dive into the nitty-gritty of the voluntary English as a Second Language position. Something in the language barrier goes amiss, however, and you find yourself agreeing to a weekly, unpaid Abitur tutoring position for her 23-year-old daughter. That wasn’t supposed to happen! The Korean woman then flies out the room and a few minutes’ later reappears with an official looking Aufgabenvereinbarung (task agreement) in hand. You’ve got to complete your information and sign the bottom of the contract. You’re now officially committed to this scam. It’s not like you’ve just signed your soul away. You can escape the ESL position and opt for helping out at your prospective boss’s language class in Charlottenburg instead. The relaxed setting includes three Koreans and their tutor, Eva. First impressions count and the three women don’t look like the underprivileged students you imagined. After a slightly awkward, multi-lingual introduction it’s clear they’re all well-off professionals: a journalist, a business woman and a university professor, classing themselves as charity cases to score free English tutoring. You don’t even have the excuse of helping them ‘integrate’ by teaching the local language (which, listening to the level of their German conversation, might not be such a bad idea). Eva, a German who learnt her fluent English through extensive travelling, casually exposes her student’s motives, “We do English because they want to be able to converse when they go abroad.” Teaching these jet-setters English isn’t the simplest of volunteer jobs. “It’s very hard to do it after work because I’m tired and I become impatient at times. Repeating everything all the time and not seeing progress is tiring,” Eva says. Soon you can empathise with the young teacher’s fatigue. “It’s pronounced ‘theeeif’,” she wearily explains for the fourth time. Eva spends two hours with her students every Thursday night in the basement of the Korean Evangelical parish church. Why on earth would she continue with this project for no pay? “I work in a political office and we’re always encouraging young people to get involved with society, so I figured I should maybe do the same,” Eva explains. “I found the project through the Christian community. They needed a volunteer to help these ladies learn English and I didn’t want to work with old people so I thought, perfect.” And apparently perfect for the students too. AS/CS