It is undoubtedly thrilling and scary to wear a clown’s costume for the first time and perform for kids in an oncology department or in a hospice, or to guide an excursion for people with disabilities. Former and current HSE students remember how it happened to them, on International Volunteer Day.
I got my first serious volunteering experience when I decided to work in the charity sector professionally. At the beginning of 2019, I became a volunteer for Vera, a charity that helps hospices. My experience happened as part of the recruitment process for the charity. Yes, for the first time in my life, a future employer not only looked at my CV and interviewed me, but sent me on an unusual internship as a volunteer. This kind of experience is necessary for both sides: for the charity – to understand whether the person is able to work in the complicated field of palliative care, and for the applicant – to understand whether they are prepared to immerse in it, to be involved and not scared.
I was lucky enough to be able to volunteer at the First Moscow Hospice, but only for one day. Then, I went on to volunteer at Fourth Hospice, which was located near my home. On the evening of my first volunteering day, as I was walking to Sportivnaya metro station and thinking that I wanted to come back, since surprisingly, I found myself more comfortable in the hospice, than outside it, among the crowds of hurrying, indifferent people. It turned out that there, emotions are sincere, and the concentration of love and care is higher. Most people think that this place is about death, but actually, there you can feel a real, concentrated version of life, making the most of every day, hour and minute that one has.
I really found myself in a very unusual place. The First Moscow Hospice near Sportivnaya metro station is a house with a garden, birds and cozy furniture – an incredibly warm space, almost as if you are at your grandmother’s. It was after the New Year, and I was taking down the Christmas tree, washing dishes, talking to the patients – and it all felt very natural.
Of course, when you dive into the volunteering world, you face certain difficulties. In my case, I had to prepare for the fact that many of my friends didn’t understand why I had chosen to do this. Why I had to deal with the theme of death (which scared them), and why I had to spent time with some strangers. I’m sure some of them thought there was something wrong with me. Sometimes, when meeting friends, we started discussing our jobs and hobbies: people were talking about business, communications, advertising and media – we could go on about these topics forever. But when I started talking about the hospice, they tried to change the topic. At first, I felt offended, but then, I understood that all people are different and not everyone is ready to talk about it.
Exactly one year ago, I left the charity and came back to HSE University. My goal was to start talking to students and staff about volunteering in a more explicit and large-scale manner than before. My colleagues supported the idea of creating a Volunteer Centre, and I am very grateful for their enthusiasm. The plan was to spend a year or two building the working process, but the COVID pandemic came, and we had to organize a system of support in three weeks. Is it hard? Yes. Is it scary? Yes, sometimes. Do I like it? I am very happy that I came to HSE University with this initiative. It proved to be the best place for volunteering. Students and teachers started helping older people during the lockdown, and they did it absolutely non-conditionally and happily. We started to receive invitations to attend volunteering conferences and events, and I understood that this happened because volunteering is a very natural fit for HSE’s reputation and values. Helping others is natural for people at HSE University.
The first serious project that I’m volunteering for is #решетканерешение (prison is not a solution), which was initiated by my classmate Zakhar Bashta. We did two things: first, we created a fundraising platform for the ‘St. Basil’s Centre’ charity, which helps teenagers who have problems with the law, and second, we spoke about this taboo topic in a YouTube video.
Before this, I, of course, had participated in other volunteering initiatives: as a schoolgirl, I went on a volunteering trip to Pushkinskiye Gory, participated in charity fairs, and helped organize an urban forum in Gostiny Dvor. I’ve definitely always been inclined towards this kind of activity. But the things we have been doing with Zakhar have become a really serious social project for me. I interviewed teenagers from St. Basil’s Centre, and worked on the video. This had a deep impact on me, for example, my view of my personal responsibility changed. Initially, we had planned that we would publish details of the teenagers’ lives, we wanted to talk about their situations and life journeys. But eventually, we understood that since the charity’s charges are underage, we can’t publish personal information online, even if they have no objections. In the end, we published information about the fund and its activities, while being very careful with the children’s stories. Our video is still helping to raise money for St. Basil’s Centre. I believe I will continue volunteering in one form or another: combining it with journalism or purely as a volunteer. I want to be part of something important.
In 2005, I had already graduated from HSE University, but still was part of the HSE Theatre. My friend who volunteered at a children’s hospital saw my clown photos from the theatre and invited me to come and work there as a clown, for free, of course.
I remember being terribly nervous. I was wearing red trousers from a construction uniform shop, and I went too far with the makeup – blurring my eyes completely. I was playing simple contact games with the kids, like charades and so on… When I left the department, I said to my friend: ‘it felt like a failure, it seems like I screwed up these twenty minutes’. And my friend said, ‘what twenty minutes are you talking about, you’ve just spent two hours there!’ Then, he showed me photos where the kids were hanging on my neck, their eyes were sparkling, and I was looking completely happy as well. And I felt that I was really exhausted, but delighted and wanted to do this again. This is a kind of energy exchange: you give a lot, but you also get a lot. That experience defined my whole life, and was how I became a professional hospital clown.
What can I say to those who want to become volunteers? Don’t be afraid. Today, it is much easier than when I started: you don’t need to do anything on your own, and there are a lot of centres where you’ll find plenty of support and guidance. Unfortunately, in Russia there is yet no independent volunteer testing centres, like in some Western countries, where people can be advised on what volunteering track suits them best. Here, people have to mainly be guided by their feelings: what topic triggers you? Kids, animals, old people, homeless people? This defines the choice.
And, of course, volunteers shouldn’t forget about their responsibilities. I have often seen a trail of irresponsible volunteering. When someone promised to come again – and never came back, or promised other impossible things… But today, there aren’t many cases of such amateur actions – this area of activity is becoming more professional. And I’m very happy to see this.
I am from Ulyanovsk, and three years ago, I enrolled in HSE University and moved to Moscow. This life change was tough, I had a hard time adjusting, and my friends and family were a huge support. But I felt the need not only to depend on the hands of those who supported me, but to care about someone, to return the favour. And at HSE Day, on the student association alley, I noticed some information about Best Buddies HSE club.
At that moment, the choice was a kind of random one. But today, after three years of working in the club, if I had to make a decision again about the field of charity I would like to be involved in, I would still choose the same – helping adults with intellectual disabilities. Because while they get less help than some other members of society, they really need it. And this work is incredibly rewarding: we simply talk to them, walk, or go on excursions, and you can see them changing right before your eyes. They learn to communicate better, not only with us volunteers, but also to strangers in the streets, cashiers and shop assistants…
My first club event was in autumn 2017. It was an excursion to Sergiyev Posad. I felt… not really scared, but certainly apprehensive. I was afraid to do something wrong, to offend someone. And I kept standing to one side, hesitatingly. In the end, they were the ones who helped me: an active woman came up, asked my name and suggested we get to know each other. Later, I learned that she was Natasha Shikunova, and she is often called the volunteers’ assistant, since she is so great.
This has become an important part of my life. I don’t spend all of my leisure time on it – there are about 3 or 4 events a month. For me, it is a serious commitment, not like ‘I’ll go if I have nothing else to do’. Last summer, during the last week of August, we had a camp, an annual event. Since it fell on the last week before our studies resumed, only a few volunteers registered, and my parents also tried to talk me out of it: ‘why go? you need to prepare for your studies’. But, of course, I went, I couldn’t not go.