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The festive season has a sneaky tendency to bring out the best and worst in people. It’s about gluttony and giving, spending time with the family and spending millions on gifts, food and partying. While the season awakens materialistic urges in anybody old enough to unwrap a present, it’s also the time of year when the prickles of conscience are felt most, and a desire to help those in need becomes more keenly felt than usual. Although this can take the form of a donation to charity, a gift of time and energy is increasingly popular in Spain.
If the idea of volunteering evokes images of handing out gifts to happy, grateful orphans on Christmas Day, think again. Few of Barcelona’s charities take on volunteers for the festive season alone. However, if you’re prepared to give some time on a regular basis—even if it’s just a couple of hours a week—then there are thousands of good causes needing help.
There are around 50,000 organisations in Catalunya alone, with over 600,000 active volunteers, said Joseph Vinceç Marín, of the Federació Catalana de Voluntariat Social. These range from tiny local groups to politically influential multinational organisations. The Federació has a database of volunteering opportunities on its website, offering a huge choice of activities from getting involved in human rights campaigning to teaching disabled kids football; from helping out a day centre for the homeless to maintaining the website of a local AIDS project.
Most groups ask that their volunteers understand and speak at least a little Castilian, although fewer demand Catalan. Many larger organisations welcome international volunteers, especially those with translating experience. While an extra pair of hands is appreciated by almost every charitable organisation, there are plenty of opportunities to use specific skills such as database construction, teaching, research expertise, or knowledge of the law.
One group that welcomes volunteers no matter what their skills is Casal Esco, a support centre for disadvantaged children and young people in the Raval. As well as providing educational support and activities, the centre gives them balanced meals during the summer and winter holidays, when the poorest kids suffer from lack of school dinners. “At Christmas, we have a campaign where we collect food and toys, then sort them and wrap them. It’s not a problem if you don’t speak much Castilian,” said Beatriz Fernandez, director of Casal Esco. “We also need volunteers from June to August for the summer project, but for this you have to, at least, understand Castilian.”
Another charity looking for volunteers is the Fundació Llars d’Amistat Cheshire, a home for cerebal palsy sufferers in the Eixample. “We ask for a commitment of a least a day a week,” said Montse Puig. “There’s no need to speak Catalan, although Castilian is necessary, as most of the work consists of accompanying people with disabilities, for example, on trips out. There’s no formal training; all that’s needed is willingness, respect and patience.”
SOS Racisme is a Barcelona-based action group with around 50 volunteer staff. “We work with volunteers in three different ways,” said Isabel Martínez. “People can work in our information centres, helping people fill out denuncias when they’ve been victims of crime, they can help out on awareness campaigns, or they can help our communications departments, producing publications. We also need extra help when we’re organising extra events like demonstrations. We’re pretty flexible – we just ask people to give whatever time they can spare.”
There are hundreds of local non-governmental organisations (NGOs - or ONGs in Castilian) like Casal Esco and SOS Racisme, offering the change to help the city’s needy; however, others tackle global issues. Ayuda en Acción is a large international development organisation with an office in Barcelona. “We collaborate with long-term volunteers,” said Lourdes Mourelo. “For those who don’t speak Castilian, we still need help with mailings and things like that, when we do specific campaigns. We normally ask for at least a month.”
Médicos Sin Fronteras sends doctors and other medical staff to trouble spots around the globe as far flung as Cambodia and Nigeria. But they’re keen for volunteers closer to home. “We look for volunteers here in Barcelona to do administrative work, supporting our teams in the field, or things like setting up exhibitions,” said Inma Mires, adding that volunteers need to speak at least basic Castilian.
Intermon (also known as Oxfam) is one of the world’s best-known charities. “We need volunteers throughout the year, but it’s important that they speak Castilian,” said Raquel Oliva. “Activities that are particularly good for foreigners are working in our shops for a few hours a week or working in the department of international cooperation doing translations, for example.
The Creu Roja (Red Cross) also has offices in Barcelona; they have a CV-boosting structured training programme, and offer a wealth of activities for every skill base. “First of all there’s general training on the organisation, then specific training,” said Roger Alonso. “Training is subsidised by us, but you have to pay about 10 percent of the cost of the training. You can collaborate in whatever field you have skills and experience in, but a lot of our volunteers work as first aiders at Camp Nou, sports matches and events like La Mercé or as lifeguards on the beaches, while others help old people or work in the Creu Roja centres. There’s no need to speak Catalan and people aren’t usually upset if people don’t speak perfect Castilian as our staff are volunteers.
Organised volunteering is relatively new in Spain: many of the activities now performed by charities and NGOs were traditionally taken care of by the family, community or church. The Franco regime was suspicious of independent voluntary organisations according to a report on volunteering in Spain published by the European Volunteering Centre (EVC). After Franco’s death, the volunteer movement got off to a slow start; many people believed that dealing with social problems was the government’s responsibility.
By the time the Barcelona Olympics began in 1992, attitudes had shifted as people were increasingly drawn to the notion of solidarity and active citizenship and the Games were staffed by huge numbers of unpaid workers. Roger Alonso said that at this time there was little choice as to what organisation to work with. “There were only four large groups: Intermón, Médicos Sin Fronteras, Caritas, (the international Catholic NGO) and the Creu Roja – so you can see how much it’s grown. But now there are many more groups, so there’s a lot more competition.”
Volunteering is still nowhere near as widespread in many countries - in 2003, 80 percent of the Spanish population had never formally volunteered, according to the EVC. Even with 2,200 volunteers, the Creu Roja still has to draft volunteers in from outside Barcelona for major events. For the increasing numbers who do participate in formal schemes, giving up a little time has its own rewards – and they’re not entirely altruistic. In its report on Spain, the EVC quotes a survey on people’s motivations for doing non-profit work: just one percent said they did it out of compassion, while a candid 38 percent said they did it for the experience and training it offers. The other 33 percent gave moral obligation as their reason.
Although volunteering is rarely as straightforward as handing out gifts to orphans, there’s no shortage of ways to help people out, directly or indirectly. Wherever you invest time, it’ll be appreciated, and it’s one way to ensure that that conscience doesn’t prickle so much next year.
Federació Catalana de Voluntariat Social (www.federacio.net) Tel. 93 314 1900
European Volunteering centre, (www.cev.be)
Casal Esco (www.fnesco.org) Tel. 93 443 0635
Ayuda en Acció (www.ayudaenaccion.org) Tel. 93 488 3377
Médicos Sin Fronteras (www.barcelona.msf.org)
Fundació Llars d’Amistat Cheshire, (www.llarsamistat.org) Tel. 93 451 4619
Red Cross (www.creuroja.org)
First published in December 2006.