In Search of Service — II: July 29, 2013


A glimpse of the famous Fernsetuhm, a television tower, can be seen from a train window in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Bjorn Karlman)

Sometimes things don’t turn out the way you expect.

I decided to call C’s lead, the man at the Plus Berlin’s reception desk, the one who knew  of an organization that helped the homeless and drug-addicted. The problem: I didn’t know his name and I only had a vague description of him. But I did know when he had worked.

Surprisingly, it was enough. The receptionist recognized who I was talking about, told me his name and when he would next be working. A couple days later, I called the reception desk again. A male voice answered. It was him.

I started my story hesitantly, thinking about how crazy it must seem. After all, more than a week had passed since the incident had happened. Hundreds of people must have gone in and out of that hostel by now. What were the odds that he would remember and know what I was talking about?

Surprisingly good. He instantly remembered C and gave me the name for the organization: Stadt Mission (City Mission.) I looked them up online and discovered that the organization had many, many volunteer opportunities.

Among them, helping travelers and people who had mental, emotional or physical problems at the main train station, Hauptbahnhof. I knew the odds of finding the troubled young man were slim, probably nonexistent. But maybe I would be able to help others like him. And who knows — maybe someday I would run into him at the train station. If there’s one thing I have learned from my travels, it’s this: The world is a very small place.

So I called the number listed. A man with halting but still fairly clear English picked up. I explained that I would like to help travelers and others at the train stations. Then he asked THE dreaded question:

“But do you speak German?”

“Erm,” I said, my mind frantically racing through the words I did know: “Hallo,” “Fruhstuck” (breakfast), “Entshuldigung,” (excuse me), “Danke” (thank you) and “Tschuss” (goodbye).

“No,” I sighed. I had figured on helping the English-speaking distressed travelers; plus, I thought that if I learned a few key phrases in German (“Do you need help?” “Please come with me to the help station,” etc.) I would at least be able to direct the non-English speaking ones to someone who could help.

Inside Berlin's Hauptbahnhof, or main train station. (Photo by Bjorn Karlman)

The man on the other end of the line carefully and kindly explained that fluent German was needed to become a volunteer. He gave me the number to another station, one that he said had more people who spoke English. I called them up, thinking this station also helped travelers.

Instead,  it turned out to be the restaurant for the impoverished and homeless that Stadt Mission also runs. Well, this might work, I thought. At least I have experience helping out in a soup kitchen.

But he, too, asked THE dreaded question and after hearing my negative reply said it would perhaps be best if I looked for another volunteer opportunity.

I was totally bummed out.

The website listed other opportunities, and one of them was sorting donations that were to be sold in Stadt Mission’s second-hand shops. This opportunity appealed to me as a.) I like looking at clothes and b.) I like organizing them. I called the number, but only reached a voice recording. I left a message. And waited.  And waited.

But at least this service opportunity listed the address for where the sorting was done, the day AND the time. If there’s one thing my marketing-genius husband has taught me, it’s always better to go in person.

So last Wednesday at 1 p.m., Bjorn and I found ourselves at the headquarters for Stadt Mission. Of course, there was some confusion about what we were doing there. A man from the donation-sorting site was called down but he didn’t speak any English. And then we got our big break.

They called the head of the volunteers, C. She was cheerful, friendly and spoke excellent English. She asked us about ourselves and what service projects we were looking to do. I seized my opportunity. I told her I was interested in doing the donation sorting, “but I’m really interested in helping the travelers and those in need at the train station…”

She also said those volunteers needed to be fluent in German, but then I explained my idea: I would be more like a scout. I would find the people in need and then bring them to the counselors. An Andrew, more than a Peter (in terms of Jesus’ disciples). She seemed intrigued by the idea and said she would look into it.

Then we were led to the donation sorting center, where the woman in charge warmly greeted us and said she would love to have our help. A few days later, I got an email from the volunteer head, asking if Bjorn and I would be interested in helping out at the restaurant?

It IS always better to go in person.

So now we have a couple of service projects lined up and are debating which ones to choose. I don’t know yet if my scout/Andrew idea in the train station will pan out. I’m hoping it does. But even if it doesn’t, I’m still keeping an eye out for that young, troubled man and others like him.



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