There has been a lot of discussion on the charity circuit recently about whether volunteering overseas is actually helpful to the communities that are being worked in. Some say that the best way to do overseas projects is to enable the locals to do it themselves by investing money in them. Others say that by going and doing the work ourselves we are patronising the locals by showing them how to do it ‘our way’ without fully understanding the culture we are working in.
At Love Russia we totally agree with both of these points which is why the majority of our projects are run by Russians in their local communities and we are the ‘enablers’ – investing money to allow these projects to happen. But we do still run a few summer projects for UK volunteers – so are these as helpful to the local communities?
For years we ran summer camps in orphanages – a week of fun and laughter for children growing up in horrendous conditions. At the time many people asked us whether this was actually helpful for the children – is one week a year of fun activities going to make their lives any better? Now these children are young adults and many are on our Genesis project or living in LR transition homes and we can hear first-hand from them how these summer camps made such a difference to them. They tell us about how in those weeks they learnt about kindness and friendship and felt valued for the first time in their lives. For many of them this was the first time they heard about God and his love for them which has meant that they have explored their faith further in their adult lives. Yes, their childhood lives were tough, but knowing that some people in the UK cared and prayed for them made a big difference.
Our volunteering opportunities abroad are now starting to change and are more focussed on practical help in local communities. One of the main reasons we haven’t run a summer camp in an orphanage for a few years is that Russians themselves are now doing lots of volunteering in orphanages – so there is much less of a need for overseas teams. Although we would prefer that children wouldn’t have to grow up in orphanages, we are encouraged to see local Russians taking an active role in supporting these children!
This week we have had volunteers working in one of the cities that many of our projects are based in. There they have worked alongside one of our Mentors doing practical jobs to serve the local community that his church is based in. They have been gardening, litter picking, bench painting and generally tidying up areas of the city. So why is this helpful? Firstly, we believe this is so important for international relations. At the moment there is so much going on between politicians from both of our countries that it is important to show communities that ordinary Russians and Britons can work alongside each other and have great friendships. Secondly, by doing this work the locals can see that their nearby church really cares for their community and hopefully this will inspire them to find out more about the church.
Later in the year we are sending a team of builders to renovate the women’s crisis centre. There they will be working alongside Russian builders as well as volunteers from the local community. Rather than our UK volunteers ‘doing it for them’ it will be a team effort. Not only will this enable skills sharing from both sides but also again be promoting that regardless of what is going on in politics, ordinary Russians and Britons can foster special friendships.
So, in conclusion, absolutely YES! Loving our neighbours surely means getting involved with them!