New generation of Estonian volunteers tackle crisis


Nursing student taking the pulse of a man who came into the soup kitchen. Photo: Veronika Gorlova

TALLINN Piet Boerefijn started Estonia’s Food Bank three years ago after a discussion with his neighbor about the lack of organized food support in the small Baltic country, while many other countries in the EU have had food banks for years. Germany, for example, has around 800 food banks.

By Veronika Gorlova

“A food bank is much more needed in Estonia than in western Europe because the poverty levels here are so much higher,” says Boerefijn, “So we went around and talked to a lot of organizations to try and set this up but nobody was willing to do it, so we did it ourselves.”

Negative stigma on volunteering

A report done by the European Commission in 2010 explains that volunteering in post-communist countries has a negative stigma attached to it. It states that during the Soviet occupation people were forced to volunteer for organizations controlled by the state, so after these states regained their independence people did not find the prospect of volunteering very appealing. Which may explain why it took a Dutch native to start a food bank in Estonia.

Lauri Luide, event coordinator at Tallin’s Serve the City says that Estonian society is estranged to volunteering and helping.

“It used to be that no matter what class you were in, whether you were rich or poor, you would have this mentality that you needed help so why would you help others. Now the mentality is changing” says Luide whose organization is easily finding volunteers.

Serve the City is a non-profit organization that partners with different projects like homeless shelters, orphanages, soup kitchens etc. and brings in volunteers to participate in the work they are doing. It started in Brussels in 2005 and has expanded to over 70 cities across the globe, including Tallinn.

Its Tallinn branch started a new initiative recently, where nursing students are brought in to soup kitchens so that they can treat minor wounds and infections of people seeking help.

Lauri Lauide says that most people who volunteer for Serve the City are students. He says that older people are less likely to volunteer because a lot of them still the mentality from the Soviet era.

“Some of it has to do with advertising, when we’re looking for volunteers its more efficient to go and promote opportunities in schools because it provides us with a big audience,” says Lauide, “But there’s also a shift in the new generation towards volunteering. Young people have a new identity where they go beyond their means.”

Government can’t solve everything

The European Commission’s report on volunteering in the EU also found that the influence of communism particularly explains the low participation in organizations that deal with social welfare. Popular opinion is that social welfare is meant to be dealt with by the government not by citizens.

“There’s only so much the government can do. There is not enough money to give people the support that they need. Welfare support has been rising in the past couple of years but it’s still only at €77 a month,” says Boerefijn, “It’s a joke when there are kids these families need to feed.”

Andra Reinomagi an advisor at the Children’s Rights Department says the government is trying to get more services to families living in poverty by coordinating with municipalities.

“Currently there are not enough services or service providers to deal with all the issues that come with poverty, it’s especially harder for smaller local governments,” says Reinomagi.

One family at a time

A recent report by the Children’s Department said that in 2010 18.6 percent of children lived in absolute poverty, that’s over 45,000 kids.

Reinomagi says that this is a big problem because it ends up being very expensive for society.

“In the future these kids become adults who are less educated, tend to have social problems, and end up being dependent on the state,” she says, “But there are ways of helping them even if they are in poverty.”

Boerefijn says that when addressing any issue you need to start somewhere. He asked himself what would be the best way of helping a single mother, and realized it was to help her feed her kids.

The Food Bank’s priority is to give food packages to families, especially single parents. It distributes around 1100 packages a week, and rotates which families get the food every week.

The organization doesn’t deal with families directly. Instead they collect food and make the food packages. For the distribution they trust local organizations like The Salvation Army to do the job.

“These organizations have already been working for 10 or 20 years. They know who to give aid to because they know who needs it the most,” says Boerefijn. “These are also the organizations that provide the volunteers, which is very important to the success of the food bank.”

People waiting in line at Tallinn's food bank. Photo: Veronika Gorlova

Volunteering is a lasting legacy

Lauri Luide says that his organization makes volunteering accessible and fun. He says that a lot of people don’t volunteer because they think it’s hard. By making it easy it provides people with better opportunities to help.

He says his organization is not just dealing with things brought on by the economic crisis.

“A lot of these problems existed before the crisis and will still be relevant after the crisis,” he says. “The need for volunteers isn’t going to go away. It will take decades for Estonian society to be at Scandinavia’s level.”


  • Estonia was under Soviet occupation from 1944-1991
  • Under communist rule volunteering was an obligation
  • After the fall of communism many people who lived through the era avoid volunteering as a way to gain control over their free time




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