I arrived at the University of Tartu in August of last year and was welcomed by a lovely autumn to a beautiful city, which all too quickly was overtaken by a dark and much colder winter. I was invited to Tartu by the University to participate as a first-year student in the international Master’s program in semiotics. Near the low point of this dark and cold winter, when the days were the shortest, I encountered an unexpected source of light through my involvement with the AIESEC project World at Home.
The basic premise of World at Home, which began in January and continued until just a couple weeks ago, was to bring international volunteers to Tartu to work in the city’s orphanages — that is, to bring the world to these homes — in order to increase the children’s global awareness, as well as to foster a greater sense of initiative and to create a personal sense of connection with the larger world.
In all, the project included seven international volunteers, from Germany, Poland, Georgia, Czech Republic, Ukraine, and (myself) the United States. The project was conceived of and to a large extent organized by a very dedicated group of local volunteers — university students who are members of AIESEC.
My personal experience took me to a small orphanage in the Karlova neighborhood, where 13 boys, ages nine to 20, live. I visited the home twice per week, and though at first, with my poor Estonian and our collective shyness, our interactions were quite awkward, after some weeks I came to feel comfortable as a regular face around the house.
My visits were always different. Sometimes a few of us would go into town to play billiards; other times, it was me and the youngest one at the computer competing in virtual tennis; often I helped with English homework. In the end, my role became simply that of a friend, and in fact though the AIESEC project has finished I continue to visit the boys each week.
The other volunteers were each assigned to an orphanage as well, which they became associated with in a similar fashion. In addition to these individual pursuits, as a group we organized weekly events, to which all of the children were invited.
One such event, which I was primarily responsible for organizing (we took turns), was what we referred to as “culture night.” Around 50 people attended this event, which began with a presentation by each of the volunteers about some aspects of the culture of their home country, including its national cuisine, certain dishes of which we had cooked and served to our guests. When these presentations were over, the children then told us what they thought was most important about Estonian culture.
Other events that we put on included a sports day at the Tartu gym, a sexual health education course for those who were interested and old enough, and a karaoke night, among others.
Volunteering has been an important part of my life for a long time. In the United States, our social services are drastically underfunded, and much important work within our cities is done by people who don’t get paid for it.
When I came to Tartu, I knew that I wanted to find some work as a volunteer, not only because it is (hopefully) beneficial to some other people, but also because, from a more selfish perspective, volunteering provides a good way for a person to make new friends and to become integrated into a new city.
Furthermore, several of my closest friends grew up, at least for some time, in orphanages, and I know personally how important it is that orphanages be good homes, both for the individuals who live there and for the broader community.
I am happy to be involved in such a home. I am also grateful to World at Home for helping me to realize some of my goals while living in Tartu, and for all the good work that was done, tirelessly and joyously, by everyone involved with the project.