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A friend in need: Why volunteering is an ideal way to make a difference to the community
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” This quote from Dr Seuss’s book The Lorax is what inspired Michelle Sequeira to found her Brussels-based non-profit Unless in 2016.
Having being struck by the number of homeless people she would see on her way to and from work, Sequeira wanted to find a way to help. She began volunteering with the charity Food4Friends five years ago, where she met founder Nino Ostojic from Bosnia-Herzegovina. Lack of funding meant the project faced closure shortly after, but Sequeira didn’t want it to end – so she took it over and launched Unless (pictured).
Through Unless, she provides food, clothing and other basic necessities to homeless people in Brussels. There are two main projects, Food4Friends and SoFresh&SoClean. Food4Friends distributes 200 warm meals and 400 cups of tea and coffee four times a week to people at North station. These meals are prepared by Ostojic and distributed by volunteers.
'A smile on people's faces'
Not only does this project provide sustenance, it’s an opportunity for vulnerable people to connect with others. Homelessness can be an isolating and lonely experience. “We take the time to listen to our friends on the streets and get to know them,” Sequeira says. “We try to put a smile on their faces when we can and support them through their difficulties when possible.”
Chris Flores from the US is a member of the volunteer team. He’s been working with the project for two years, and though he says volunteering is sometimes difficult, there is joy in it as well. “When you look into the eyes of the people you are helping and you can see the appreciation, it makes it worth it,” he says.
And the volunteers benefit from the experience too. Flores points out that many of them work in offices, spending all day staring at a screen. “At the end of the day, at the end of the week, at the end of the year, not many of us can say they did something that will benefit our fellow man in such a direct and meaningful way,” he says. “So those small tokens of appreciation, the gratitude you can see on their faces, it gives meaning to that work. What gives me the most joy is when I see them laughing. Then we know we are making a difference.”
Help for the homeless
The other project Unless undertakes is SoFresh&SoClean. It’s difficult for people without a permanent home to get clean, something Unless believes everyone has a right to. That’s why, twice a week, four to six homeless people are invited to take a hot shower, wash their clothes and spend the afternoon indoors at the Unless office.
“These meetings allow people to connect and share their past and experiences,” says Sequeira. “They give us the opportunity to understand their needs and help direct individuals to other facilities and organisations that can help. We follow up on our friends, provide them with support, spend time talking to them."
She is convinced that these services have an impact on depression and other common side effects of homelessness, and credits her team of volunteers as the reason Unless has become so essential to this community. “We have managed to bring together a team of incredible people with huge hearts,” she says. “They all come with open minds and hearts, willing to give their time to this project. None of them have any motives other than to just help the people we serve.”
Another way to get involved in the community is through Buddywerking, a project in Brussels and Flanders that supports people who are socially isolated due to psychological problems. It pairs them with a volunteer buddy with whom they can chat, go for a coffee, watch a film or take a walk. Participants are diverse, with different backgrounds, ages and levels of vulnerability. Expats who have been in Belgium for at least six months are welcome to apply to be a buddy.
“Everyone needs contact with others, it’s a basic need,” says Robin Broché, coordinator of the Flemish branch of the project. “People with mental health problems sometimes lack this contact, and they can find it difficult to connect with others. This can lead to loneliness and isolation.” Buddywerking aims to provide people with normal social contact, and is complementary to professional mental healthcare.
“We believe a voluntary buddy can offer this kind of contact, in a relation of equality, and by doing so it helps the participant to reconnect with the world,” Broché says. Although Buddywerking is designed to help those with mental illness to find social contact, it benefits both parties. “Both the participant and the buddy value the contact,” Broché says. “It’s a relationship based on equality and shared interests. Two worlds are brought together, which opens up and enriches perspectives on each other.”
Buddywerking helps destigmatise mental illness, and volunteers gain perspective on things they may never have gone through before. “There are a lot of beautiful stories,” says Broché. “Buddywerking can help people to grow in their recovery, they gain self-confidence, they become stronger, are able again to make social contact with others, they find a trust and a friend in their buddy.”
Lend a hand
Serve the City
Various community activities in Brussels, Leuven, Mons and Sint-Truiden,
Citizen platform supporting and advising refugees in Brussels, bxlrefugees.be
Mental health helpline and general support for expats, chsbelgium.be
Shelter housing dogs, cats, donkeys, goats and other animals, helpanimals.be
This article first appeared in ING Expat Time