Everybody is working the weekend, by choice

The Prague Post

Volunteer program seeks to help NGOs, build international connections

It’s a Friday evening, and about 20 people are gathered around a food-laden table. Questions fill the air: “Where are you from? What do you do? Why are you here?”

The location isn’t a pub though. It’s a Buddhist Center near Ceské Budejovice, and the group has come from all over the Czech Republic, and even Germany, to spend the weekend a bit differently, by volunteering through a program called Tamjdem.

“Tamjdem’s aim is to promote NGOs and promote volunteering,” said Markéta Votavová, the project coordinator. “We want to show people it’s possible to spend your free time volunteering.”

“Tam jdem” means “There we go” and is a project of Duha, a charity that works with children and young people. Part of its mission is also to get young people volunteering, and it organizes one- or two-week volunteer work camps as well as longer placements with the European Voluntary Service (EVS) – a European Union initiative that places young people in countries throughout the EU for long-term volunteer projects. About half of the participants on this trip were EVS volunteers working in the Czech Republic. For Duha, Tamjdem is the perfect introduction to short-term volunteering.

On this particular weekend, the project is working on the still-in-progress Buddhist Center Vyhlídky. Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, the group bought a former farm and is converting it into a place for mediation, courses and retreats. Throughout the weekend, the group will do a variety of things to help out: clean windows, stack wood, weed the pond, hang new prayer flags. While this may not sound like particularly interesting or important work, currently there are six people living at the center to keep house and, doing everyday maintenance, they rely on volunteers to get additional work done.

After good food, conversation and some ice-breaker games, the group troops upstairs to bed. The top floor of the U-shaped nondescript center has been renovated into sleeping areas for guests, a large meditation room and workshops. Mornings don’t come too early at Tamjdem, and, after a hearty breakfast, the group receives a history and full tour of the center. Participating in Tamjdem puts you up close and personal with a range of nonprofit organizations, and the group this weekend learned about how the group bought the property through sponsors and donations, the type of Buddhism they practice, the goals of the center and why a space like this is needed. Then it was time to get to work. People split up into various areas of the compound, many working on a huge wood pile that needed to be cut and stacked, re-stocking the supply after the long, cold winter. A break for lunch (volunteers also participate in the cooking and clean-up) and then it’s back to work. Evenings are spent together in an “unofficial party,” Votavová says, relaxing after the hard day of work. On this night, the group visits the meditation room for a lecture on Buddhism and a mini-meditation session.

Votavová says each theme of a Tamjdem weekend influences who comes. Projects have seen volunteers cleaning up a park at an ecological center, working with mentally and physically disabled people, building playgrounds in Brno, helping out at a yoga center, cleaning and fixing the performance tents for an alternative theater company, setting up tents and selling tickets at a music festival and working at a refugee camp. The work involved is usually outdoors and maintenance work, getting the NGO buildings back in shape, landscaping and other tasks that groups of people can handle.

“It’s an opportunity to work in places many people don’t get to experience,” she said. “I’m always looking for new themes and interesting NGOs that really need the help; the organization provides the work.”

Votavová says the average group is around 12 people, and most are students who hear of the program through promotions with the EVS program, plus Czech schools and universities. This weekend had seven different nationalities, which Votavová says is typical. She uses the cultural diversity to promote Tamjdem to Czechs as a way to meet foreigners and to international volunteers as a way to see a different part of the country and meet Czechs. Tamjdem is held roughly twice a month, except during summer holidays. There is a participation fee to join, which pays for insurance, food and a one-way transport ticket to the project.

Martin Seifert is a Czech medical student who was participating in his fourth Tamjdem.

“My expectations were fulfilled,” he said. “I was looking forward to working in the fresh air, and there was pleasant company.”

Bright eyes and smiles could be seen on everyone when the volunteers left Sunday afternoon; they’d had a rewarding weekend, while the staff onsite was able to cross some items off their extensive to-do list.

“I wanted to experience something different,” said Nele Waag, a German university student from Dresden. “I loved this weekend because of the new people and being in another kind of world.”