At the top of this post is a photo of the residents of Ak Mechet, a Crimean Tatar settlement outside Simferopol, working, as volunteers, to repair their badly potholed (driving on it sort of felt like riding the waves) road. This was an entirely volunteer effort, organized by Neshet, a builder, who brought clean fill out from a building he was demolishing, and recruited volunteers. It happened informally, through word of mouth, people saw people working and came out, even those without cars, said Neshet's teenage son, Serdar. These were really hot days, and these men worked really hard on something that is rightly the responsibility of city government.
I talked with an American friend living in Ak Mechet about why, particularly when volunteering is still a relatively new Ukrainian concept in its post-Soviet independence. She thought it was because the Crimean Tatars, deported to Uzbekistan by Stalin have had to work together as a community just to survive. After independence, hundreds of thousands of Crimean Tatars made the decision to return to their homeland and have made lives and communities here. So for these residents of Ak Mechet, repairing the road was one more step.
In Donetsk, we met Ania, who served as one of our volunteer interpreters. She was a child psychologist in her 20s and she volunteered because she thought it was an important way to gain different perspectives--to understand more about children and families and to appreciate different points of view.
And so Neshet, Svetlana, and Ania helped reinforce to me some important points about recruiting and retaining volunteers:
- Have volunteer jobs that matter. I've certainly asked more than my share of volunteers to spend a day sticking on mailing labels. But consider what kinds of really meaningful work you can ask volunteers to do. I think all of us increasingly want to have meaningful lives, including our volunteer efforts (and if you can't make it meaningful, at least make it fun!)
- Be flexible about choices. In all of these cases, the volunteer decided what was important. That doesn't work everywhere, and I know volunteers often want to do things that aren't appropriate in a museum sense. But provide volunteers, as you can, with some level of decision-making power.
- Expanding a world view. Encourage volunteers to think about how volunteering can expand their world view--and then recognize and celebrate those volunteers.
And speaking of volunteers, a big shout-out to our tremendous volunteer translators on this trip. You've all been incredible!