ODESA – The Odesa-based non-governmental organization Ukrainian Volunteer Service (UVS), a group that aims to promote a culture of volunteering, celebrated its fourth anniversary on August 29 with a gathering at the Odesa Fine Arts Museum. The event drew together members, partners and participants of the group’s projects in order to highlight the successes and chart a course for the future.
“Our mission is to develop a culture of volunteering and mutual assistance in Ukraine,” said the head of the NGO, Anna Bondarenko, who founded the group in 2017.
At that time, a team of activists from Odesa realized that they wanted to develop a culture of volunteering to become popular in Ukraine because they believe doing so will help strengthen civil society in the country.
During the organization’s first four years of activity, UVS has engaged more than 35,000 people in Ukraine who have taken on different volunteer projects. The NGO says that 1,000 graduates of its programs continue to participate and develop volunteering in different regions of the country, and more than 500,000 people have learned about volunteering as a result of the organization’s informational campaigns.
UVS focuses on developing a culture of volunteering in regions of Ukraine where that culture is most necessary. The group works on social assistance, advocacy and education.
“Recent years have proven that volunteering is part of the DNA of every Ukrainian,” Ms. Bondarenko said.
“However, there are still a large number of stereotypes that prevent participation in volunteer projects,” she added. “Dispelling these stereotypes is part of the activity of the Ukrainian Volunteer Service. It is not enough to work only in the information field. It is important to show the stories of volunteers involved in solving social problems not only in big cities but also in Drohobych, Zhmerynka and Horishni Plavny,” she said, references smaller towns and cities in Ukraine.
One of the first projects the group undertook was Volunteer Agents, which aims to develop civil society in different Ukrainian regions. Most of the volunteering activity in Ukraine is concentrated in large cities – Kyiv, Lviv, Kharkiv, Dnipro, Odesa – and many projects are conducted in the areas near Russia-occupied territories in the country’s east. However, engagement in volunteering is comparably low in other areas – even in regional centers. Social activity in small towns and villages is even lower.
As a result, UVS came up with the Volunteer Agents program – an annual event during which volunteers from different parts of Ukraine work on developing a culture of volunteering in their towns.
Each year the organization selects 30 participants from 15 cities for the project. During the fourth anniversary celebration, UVS held a graduation ceremony for the alumni of the Volunteer Agents’ third season.
The program consists of intensive training, personal growth through mentoring and volunteer projects in small towns to develop a volunteer movement. During the program, participants create local projects in their hometowns. Every year organizers select new Volunteer Agents who become coordinators of volunteer communities in their cities and strengthen the local community and non-profit organizations. The project is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy.
“When the Ukrainian Volunteer Service was just established, we wanted people to hear more about volunteering, talk more about it and make volunteering a big deal in Ukraine,” said Olena Vuzka, an operations manager at UVS.
“Over time, we realized that we started talking more about volunteering, and there were a lot of information sources with different opportunities to engage in it. This led to another challenge – there was an overflow of information, which was not structured,” Ms. Vuzka said.
Ukrainian Volunteer Service also faced the problem that it was easy to find volunteering opportunities in a big city but very challenging for people to do so in small towns or villages.
“That’s why we always dreamed of creating a place where people can start finding their way in volunteering, and, from March 2021, it became the Volunteer Platform,” Ms. Vuzka said.
Volunteer Platform is an online portal that aggregates different volunteer opportunities from all over Ukraine. The project aims to improve the way people volunteer in order to bring about significant change in the country, according to UVS, which created the platform along with UNICEF, Ukraine’s Ministry of Youth, and the IT company SoftServe.
The platform creates a bridge between non-profit organizations, activists and volunteers. It helps to find like-minded people quickly and unites so that they can make positive impact in their community. In aggregating all of the different opportunities, Volunteer Platform lets potential volunteers spend less time on finding opportunities and instead spend more time actually volunteering and helping.
The UVS team also had to adapt because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, in June 2020 UVS launched a telephone volunteering program, My Telephone Friend, which is the first of its kind in Ukraine. The project, conducted in partnership with UNICEF, aims to assist socially vulnerable groups.
“At the beginning of the quarantine, we were at a crossroads – to transfer our work online and continue to do what we do, or launch projects that will respond to new challenges. This is how the coronavirus hotline first appeared, followed by My Telephone Friend,” Ms. Vuzka said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has drawn attention to the social isolation of the elderly, people with disabilities, single parents and families with young children. For people in these groups, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused not only physical but also psychological struggle. As a result, the My Telephone Friend project assists vulnerable groups by providing them with emotional support.
Other countries with telephone volunteering initiatives have long been working to address similar issues. In the United Kingdom, for example, more than 250,000 young people have volunteered in telephone projects. To date, no large-scale telephone support project has been implemented in Ukraine.
According to the survey U-Report, a project conducted by UNICEF, 59 percent of active young people stopped volunteering or began to do less volunteering during the onset of the pandemic. For them, My Telephone Friend became an opportunity to stay active during a pandemic and impact the new problem created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Almost 40 percent of telephone volunteers are teenagers aged 13-18 who are ready to support their friends when they have free time.
The UVS team believes that helping a person over the phone is simple and does not require significant effort, and it is safe to do during a pandemic. Over the past year, more than 5,000 people from all over Ukraine called the hotline and received support from people who have taken part in the program.
“Life is tough for me. I have a disability, and my telephone friend Irynka is like a sun, like an angel for me. She helps and supports me more than my own children. Thank you for this project and for what you are,” said one woman, Nadia, who lives in the Odesa region and uses the program.
To date, 9,500 volunteers have registered to volunteer for the telephone project, and over 20,000 phone calls were made in the first year of the project’s activity. Most volunteers who engage in the program are from Kyiv, Odesa, Lviv, Kharkiv and Zaporizhia.
“I want to share positivity with different people. It’s great when you know that you can help others, at least in a word, to put a smile on their face,” said Olesya, a volunteer from the Zaporizhia region.
Apart from doing their own volunteer work, UVS members also help other organizations develop by teaching them how to manage volunteer projects.
“The School of Volunteering teaches activists what volunteering is and how to start your journey in it. And we conduct training on volunteer management for public organizations where we talk about how to make sure that volunteers who come to the organization stay with it,” Ms. Vuzka said.
After four years of activity, UVS became one of the most promising NGOs in Ukraine and one of the leaders in the NGO sector of Odesa. They have built sustainable relationships with international institutions like UNICEF, USAID, U.N. Volunteers, National Endowment for Democracy, and the organization continues to develop its organizational capacity, impacting the volunteer culture throughout Ukraine.
And for UVS officials, this is just the beginning.
“The UVS community numbers more than 35,000 people who change their cities for the better every day. We strive to make this number grow exponentially,” Ms. Bondarenko said.