Serve the City: How to become an aware citizen?16.09.2015
At the national state defence courses in spring, Kalle Mihkelson expressed the thought that “the higher the awareness of our citizens, the stronger the guarantee of Estonia’s security”. I agree with this thought, but civil awareness is not important for security alone – it also has a major impact on culture and mutual tolerance. The most topical issues today are the influx of refugees, equality of gay people, our neighbour to the east and a few more. All of these issues create fear among many citizens. A lack of awareness is almost always the main source of fear – what will it lead to, how will it affect me and what will I have to start doing differently?
Similar to external fears, there are simpler topics that may scare people due to a lack of awareness. How many of us avoid looking that scary homeless person in the eye when walking though the Baltic railway station at dusk? This is one of the main issues that the people at Serve the City, which coordinates volunteers, have to deal with. Among its other activities, Serve the City makes sure that every Sunday there are enough volunteers at the Põhja-Tallinn soup kitchen to serve warm soup to more than 200 people. Many of the kitchen’s clients are homeless, unwashed, drunk and rather dishevelled. They look just like the people you hope you’ll never have to deal with in the street or on the tram.
I remember the time five years ago when I thought that the majority of homeless people were extremely violent, constantly under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and every time they looked at me they were planning to take something that was mine. I had this very stereotypical opinion because I’d had almost no personal contact with them. When I started managing Serve the City, I had to roll up my sleeves and start helping the others who were serving people in the soup kitchen. Some time later, we carried out a project as part of the weekly soup kitchen where we talked to the kitchen’s clients to find out why they were visiting us, what their past had been like and what they dreamed about. Somewhat surprisingly, we heard more and more stories which showed us that the people coming for the soup were educated specialists who’d been derailed after losing their jobs or the death of a loved one, and it had affected them so badly that they were still unable to get their lives back on track. Many of the people were pensioners who had worked hard all their lives, but now gave all of their pension money to their children so they wouldn’t have to go hungry.
Seeing these people and hearing their stories has drastically changed my attitude, not only towards homeless people, but people in general – we often label them before we get to know them and their stories. The more of these stories I hear, the more I know that I can be compassionate, helpful and brave. The goal of Serve the City is to make volunteering as accessible and inspiring for people as possible, because it gives us more and more citizens who are socially aware, who have a good imagination and can see beyond first impressions, and who understand that every person’s small contribution by helping someone else leads to big changes in making society as a whole friendlier and more compassionate.
Lauri Luide, Serve the City