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Volunteering in Germany: Freiwilliges Soziales Jahr

Stuck for vocational or academic inspiration or direction? Keen to undertake work that makes a difference and contributes to society? Or perhaps you are interested in spending a year in Germany, to learn more about the country's social services sector, improve your German and gather valuable professional and philanthropic experience. The Voluntary Social Year may be for you.

Volunteering in Germany: Freiwilliges Soziales Jahr
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When German students near the end of their schooling, and start making decisions about how they will spend the next few years, discussion often focuses on four main choices: an apprenticeship (Ausbildung), university, travelling overseas, or a Voluntary Social Year (Freiwilliges Soziales Jahr or FSJ).

The German Voluntary Social year is a period of time, generally from six to 18 months, spent doing voluntary work in the German social sector. The state-funded program is available to those who have both completed compulsory high school education and are under 27 years of age. Designed to offer young adults the chance to find their vocational or academic orientation while contributing to the greater social good, the program affords its participants legal status comparable to that of those doing a German Ausbildung, or apprenticeship.

The German Voluntary Year has its roots in the Philadelphischer Dienst, a program established in 1962 by Gertrud Rückert. At the time, while men performed a compulsory year of civilian service, there were no avenues for women to participate in community services. The Philadelphischer Dienst offered girls who had graduated from high school the chance to work in the social sector for a year prior to their university studies. The program provided not only a precursor for, but a framework upon which to build what is today known as the Voluntary Social Year.

There are a variety of types of work available to those wishing to participate in a Voluntary Social Year, and all fall under the umbrella of the social sector. Participants are fully integrated into the culture of their placement, gaining valuable experience and education, with the pedagogical support of the institution. Some examples of where assignments can be undertaken include working in nursing homes and hospitals, with ambulatory services and people with disabilities, in youth welfare and kindergartens or with children from difficult family backgrounds. Requirements for applications should be discussed in detail with the institution you are applying for a placement with as requirements may differ depending on where you are applying for a position and indeed within different departments of the same institution.

Rules and regulations of the placement, including the location, hours of work, and remuneration vary and are governed by the actual institution at which you do your year of service.  Remuneration, often referred to as pocket money, is usually given for travel costs and meals, and may complement accommodation. In the event there is no accommodation offered by the institution, financial compensation can be provided. Health insurance is automatically provided to participants in the program.

While the Voluntary Social Year is a German initiative, it is also open to non Germans, including those from EU member states and third states. It is, however, simpler for an EU citizen than it is for a non-EU citizen. Non-EU citizens need a visa that allows them both employment and residence in Germany for the duration of their Voluntary Social Year. Often, the institution in which you are undertaking your assignment will assist you in securing the appropriate visa. It is quite common for people who have spent some time in Germany already, as an au-pair for example, to continue their stay in Germany by doing a Voluntary Social Year. If this is the case, a renewed visa allowing residence and employment will need to be sought. For foreigners undertaking a Voluntary Social Year, their place of residence must be Germany prior to the start of their assignment and they must have registered with the city hall in their town of residence.

Citizens of EU member states, however, like non-EU citizens, will need to ensure they can financially support themselves for the duration of their assignment. Both EU and non-EU citizens are not allowed to receive social benefits from the German government as financial assistance, while doing a Voluntary Social Year.

Not only can foreigners participate in a German FSJ, but Germans can undertake a FSJ abroad. A Voluntary Social Year taking place abroad can only last for a maximum of twelve months, and is regulated in the same manner, by the same rules, as an FSJ taking place in Germany. The participant is bound by an agreement with the institution they are working for, and their overseas FSJ is fully recognised by Germany. It is an excellent chance to both experience life in another country, and contribute positively to a different community.

Should an assignment in the social sector not quite be what you're after, but participating in a Voluntary Year assignment is still something you're interested in, there is also the option of undertaking a Voluntary Ecological Year (Freiwilliges Ökologisches Jahr or FÖJ). Unlike the Voluntary Social Year, in which community work is the focus, with the Voluntary Ecological Year, environmental education and issues like conservation and protection are the focus. However the same rules apply to the Voluntary Ecological Year as to the Voluntary Social Year, in terms of financial necessities and reimbursement, visas for foreigners, and location, working hours and application requirements being the domain of the institution the placement is undertaken at. The Voluntary Ecological Year can send participants as far afield as Africa, or keep them closer to home in national parks and forests.

The Voluntary Social Year acts as an excellent opportunity for young German adults and foreigners alike to give back to the community while figuring out their next vocational or academic steps. It provides participants with practical experience and the opportunity to learn a little bit more about the world around them, and the people in it.