Volunteering at the Maarja Village

8. Jan 2020

The involvement of volunteers is an important part of the civil society organizations work. Volunteers can help build community, its capacity, improve the quality of activities and reach more people in need. Huko Laanoja, Development Manager of Maarja Village in Southern Estonia, shares his experience with volunteers of different origins. 

Maarja Village is a community in South Estonia, where adults with intellectual disabilities live. They are not customers of Maarja Village, but residents who organize their own lives. They are also supported by a family to help them cope better. Often, the village residents meet volunteers who contribute their time and energy to strengthening the community. 

Not only locals and native speakers of Estonia participate as volunteers. Village activities have been swayed by guests from all over the world – from Turkey to Brazil. New settlers have only started to be talked about in recent years, but foreign volunteers have played an important role in Maarja Village activities for the past 15 years. The principle of the village is the involvement of volunteers: land and language are not an obstacle! 

For successful cooperation between residents and volunteers the willingness and preparation of the organization is more important than the volunteer’s own background. Volunteers are not just free labor. Involving them requires planning and thoughtful work. They cannot simply be shaken up for doing something, but the association is responsible for their actions and involvement. Volunteers do not participate in the activities of the association themselves, and time and energy must be invested in it. 

In order for a volunteer to understand what and why he is doing exactly, he needs to experience and see as much as possible. To do this, foreign volunteers need to talk about Estonia and the local culture, organize opportunities to get to know the local community and country, connect with it and integrate with it. There are various ways to support volunteers in Maarja Village, such as mentor meetings, need-based meetings, different events, outings and joint activities. 

Every situation and challenge can be solved by supporting and dealing with a person, addressing concerns in a timely manner. An organization that wants to involve volunteers must find someone in their team who has the time and energy to contribute to the volunteers. In the case of new immigrants, this person must want to introduce the life and circumstances of Estonia, plan different activities and implement them together with volunteers. 

Why should new immigrants become volunteers at all? It provides an opportunity to shape the community in which to live and to strengthen it collectively. There is an important mentality in volunteering, and it is useful to be interested in getting to know new people. 

Connections come with different expectations. Some want a clear plan and previously set activities. Some other at the same time want to initiate and create activities for themselves and the community. The civil society organization must be flexible and open, starting the process with each person openly and with a clean slate. The experience of the Maarja Village confirms that in this way, the community and the volunteers working for it will eventually benefit from the cooperation. 

NENO and the Estonian Village Movement Kodukant are promoting volunteering among new immigrants. The activities are funded by the Ministry of the Interior and the European Social Fund.