Volunteering for Szlachetna Paczka
In my today’s post I’d like to tell you about my recent volunteering experience with Szlachetna Paczka. The Polish version of the article is much longer, the reason for it being that my goal was to give a detailed description of the whole process to the people considering volunteering for this organisation. As Szlachetna Paczka is a Poland-based project, I don’t really think that any of the non-Polish speaking readers would need such a detailed guidance. Even if you live in Poland, you would probably have to speak fluent Polish to take part in the project as a volunteer. You may, however, consider becoming a gift-giver or, if you live in another country, try to look for similar projects. Or even start driving your own, if you find Szlachetna Paczka interesting and inspiring.
Therefore, I decided to write a short description of the whole project to give you an idea of what it is. It’s up to you to evaluate if you find this kind of activity to be an answer to the problem of poverty and inequalities in today’s society!
What is Szlachetna Paczka?
Szlachetna Paczka means, literally, a Noble Pack (the word “Paczka” in Polish meaning both “package” and, informally, “a group of friends”). It is a charity project run since 2001 by Stowarzyszenie Wiosna – an association based in Cracow. The aim of the project, the culmination of which takes part every year before Christmas, is to connect families in need with individuals or groups of people in a stable financial situation (so called gift-givers) who are willing to provide, on a one-time basis, some material help to the less fortunate ones. The help provided shouldn’t consist in buying random things for the needy and then feeling good about it. On the contrary, it should be well-thought and should give the beneficiaries a chance to become independent from other people’s help.
The character of the gift will vary according to the needs of the specific family. It can be for example tools that will help them to start working and generate or increase their income (for example, carpenter’s tools, a beautician’s kit). On the other hand, if in the family there is a person with major health problems (i.e. after a stroke), the gift-giver might be asked to provide some rehabilitation equipment (for example, a stationary bicycle) to help the person to come back to health. If there are children in the family, the gift-givers are frequently asked to buy books and clothes for school. Each case is individual, that’s why gift-giving is always preceeded by a careful investigation of the family’s situation. This is a task for volunteers.
Volunteers and their role
Szlachetna Paczka is based mainly on the work of volunteers from all regions of Poland (there are, however, a few paid full-time employees of the association based in Cracow, working for example in accounting, IT and marketing departments). But let’s focus on volunteers who are the core of the whole project.
The recruitment of volunteers starts already in August. This part is run by regional leaders (also volunteers) who meet the candidates in an informal situation (i.e. in a cafe) and explain them how the project works. Each leader is assigned to a specific region of Poland or part of a city – in case of big metropolies. Therefore the volunteers always have a chance to work in an area where they live.
You don’t really need to meet any specific criteria to become a volunteer – you only have to be of age and interested in helping other people.
Then, in September, there is a training for beginning volunteers (those who have already taken part in the project in previous years, don’t need to participate). The training usually takes place at weekend and you have to be prepared to dedicate one whole day to it.
For the volunteers, the most intense work starts in October. Their main task is to carry out interviews with a few families, evaluate their situation and decide whether or not they qualify for the program. The list of families is prepared based on information provided by schools, religious institutions or social workers. Families cannot apply to the program on their own.
As a volunteer you will be in charge of a few families – starting from the minimum two to, say, five or maximum six, depending to your experience and the amount of time that you are willing to offer. Generally, you have to visit each family twice. The first visit is usually longer: it is a general interview the aim of which is to become familiar with the family’s situation: the reasons for which they found themselves in difficulties, the problems and occupations of each family member, their income and their expenses. You have also to ask them about their plans for the future and dreams. The second visit is to prepare a list of their specific material needs and determine what could help them to overcome the poverty. After the two visits, you decide whether or not you wish to qualify them for the program. During each visit, you will be always accompanied by another volunteer.
Which families qualify for the program?
It is never an easy decision to reject a family from the project. Generally ineligible are the families excessively demanding, greedy, agressive and passive at the same time. Those who don’t do anything to overcome the difficult situation, but rely exclusively on other people’s help – generally, the cases in which material aid would probably bring more harm than good.
The families that qualify for the project are the ones which, in spite of a difficult life situation, take at least some efforts to overcome it (i.e. they study, try to obtain new qualifications, take a good care of their children’s education, actively look for a job, etc.). These are the initiatives that Szlachetna Paczka aims to support and reward.
When you finally decide to include a family in the program, you have to write a description of their general situation and their specific material needs. This description is extremely important because it will later appear in the database available for gift-givers. Based on the description, they select a specific family they want to help.
The beneficiary and the gift-giver might eventually meet after the project is over, but it is also possible that the meeting wouldn’t be comfortable for one of the sides (for obvious reasons). That’s why the volunteer is always there to serve as an intermediary between them. He or she needs to be in touch with the gift-giver, provide them with constructive advice (if needed) on what would be the best way to help the family. After all, the volunteer is the person who best came to know the family.
The Grand Final of the project
The Grand Final takes place at a weekend, in the mid-December. In 2017, it was on the 9th and 10th of December. These are extremely intense days, when the volunteers can finally see the fruits of their weeks long work. This is when the gift-givers arrive to the so-called regional magazine (in the area where I volunteered, this place was simply on of the primary schools in the region) and bring their gifts for the families. Volunteers are there, waiting to welcome “their” respective gift-givers, offer them some tea or coffee and thank them for their generosity towards the families. The gifts are usually of a considerable value – on average, 2689 PLN (usually, gift-givers don’t organise them on their own, but they have their families and friends involved too).
When the gift-giver leaves the magazine, the volunteer’s task is to use one of the organisation car’s and deliver the gifts to the families they are in charge of. You don’t have to drive the car – there is usually a volunteer driver “on duty”. You also need to take a few other volunteers with you as the packages are in most of cases very heavy. Then you go to “your” family’s home and bring them the long-awaited gifts! Believe me, it’s hard to describe the joy and all the positive emotions that accompany such a final visit.
Is it worth giving a try?
First of all, I have to highlight the fact that, as in any organisation run by humans, in Szlachetna Paczka you can hear of problems, conflicts and clashes of opinions. You need to be aware that as a volunteer you might also encounter some bureaucracy. Every time you visit a family, you will have to fill in a detailed report, both on paper and on-line. This is a lot of work and some of the less patient volunteers might feel annoyed every time they have to do this.
Another thing that can happen are problems with gift-givers. Personally, I have not experienced any problems of this kind (neither has anyone in the area where I volunteered). However, I have heard some stories from other regions of Poland where the gift-giver failed, on a last-minute basis. Either they stopped replying to the volunteer’s phone calls or e-mails or, instead of the declared, very specific material help, they brought some old, useless stuff they found at home. I can imagine how much stress this kind of situation can cause to the volunteer in charge. When such a scenario occurs they usually have to organise quickly a collection of funds or ask for surplus gifts in other regions. In most cases, they manage to satisfy the family’s needs, but I suppose a situation where the declared gift-giver lets you down is not a pleasant thing to experience.
In spite of all the possible problems, I have no doubts about Szlachetna Paczka being a worthwile project. First and the most important thing is the satisfaction felt by the volunteer when the family they are in charge of finally receive the much needed help. This is an extremely emotional moment that cannot be compared to anything else. You can see with your own eyes how specific people that you have come to know over the past months receive material catering for their specific needs. Believe me, the dose of endorphines you receive at such moment is huge!
Moreover, the volunteering project lasts for a good few months. In this period, you regularly meet other volunteers from your area. The meetings are not only related to the project itself. Very often volunteers go out together to grab a beer, do some bowling, iceskating, dancing or other activities. It’s a great way to meet new friends who live in a close neighbourhood and think alike.
Another important aspect is learning new skills. When volunteering for SzP, you can learn a lot about social work, logistics, people management, working with business partners and sponsors, marketing and many other things that you can further include in your CV.
Last but not least – you feel that your work contributes to building a strong local community. You come to know your neighbours and their problems and then, together, you look for the ways to solve them. Rather than being a passive onlooker, you become a changemaker. I guarantee it brings plenty of pride and satisfaction.
Do you have similar projects in your country? Or maybe you feel inspired to start driving an action like this in the place you live in?
I would be happy to hear from you about what you think about it!