Posted by: tabliope | October 7, 2008


Yesterday I was involved in a couple of incidents of bad behaviour at the place where I do my volunteering.  What we are supposed to do is collect food from a variety of sources and then redistribute it through our 'shop' to people who need it.  Being a German organisation there are a gazillion rules and regulations about the administration of this but it does work pretty fairly.  Basically people pay £7.50 per adult per household and £3.50 per child and this entitles you to collect free groceries twice a week.  Once you're in the system it's pretty much a lottery what you end up getting because we have no real idea what  will be availabe given that a lot of it is food that has reached its sell-by date or fruit and vegetables that aren't quite as fresh as they once were and we are entirely dependent on donations.  Some days there is loads and other days we're scratching around for stuff.

This weekend was Erntedank which is the same as the British harvest thanksgiving where people take produce to the church and then this produce is redistributed to the needy.  Here, in our town, our organisation takes charge of the redistribution of the produce and yesterday it was all hands on deck to sort the fresh food quickly and to store dried goods according to use-by dates.  The shop was open for business as usual and in the morning I went into to help with sorting produce before doing my usual monday afternoon shift in the shop.  About ten minutes before the shop was due to close for lunch I walked past the door and one of the helpers called to me and asked me if I could bring some cabbages in because they'd run out of vegetables and there were still a couple of ladies to be served.  The management structure of voluntary organisations, particularly in Germany, could fill a number of boring blog posts and this isn't the time to get into it suffice to say that it wasn't really my place to decide that it was okay to take a box of vegetables into the shop despite the fact that we were overwhelmed with the amount of fresh produce being brought in every few minutes.  Our teamleader caught sight of me taking the cabbages through and told me to put them back and I explained that there was no vegetables in the shop and there were still customers.  She told me again to put them back so I went into the shop and explained to my colleague that I wasn't allowed to bring the cabbages through and then apologised to the customers and then I ranted at a couple of my colleagues about how we were meant to be giving food to people who needed it. 

I was overwhelmingly angry about what happened and I accept that I should have probably checked with Elke our team leader before grabbing the cabbages but there were so many people around and it was so busy that I never thought to do it.  What I'm angry about isn't that I got a vague telling-off but that in order to keep the hierarchy in place it meant that someone went home with no cabbage and that is quite simply wrong.  This wasn't an isolated incident and similar things have happened before but yesterday felt particularly mean and petty.   To continue the theme of pettiness I refused to sit and have lunch with everyone and instead went out on my own claiming to be busy but I really needed to get some space in my head.

After lunch I went into the shop to do my shift and got into my routine quite quickly.  Our customers are very mixed – Russians, lots of people from the Eastern Bloc countries,  Iraqis and Iranians and lots of young unemployed Germans.  I was serving one lady who could speak no German and she had two children with her who spoke very little German but we managed to stumble along okay with her pointing at things and me handing them to her.  She pointed at one of the shelves and I couldn't quite work out what it was she wanted and was picking up jars of pickles, tins of soup, packets of rice and she kept shaking her head and waggling her finger.  One of my co-workers was walking past as this happened and she grabbed a packet of couscous and shoved it at me and told me that's what the lady was pointing at.  Then she walked over to the lady and leaned forward and shouted 'Deutsch lernen' (learn German) and then walked out.  I still can't quite believe it happened, I can't adequately explain the venom in this womans voice and I can't even explain my emotions at the time or even later.  I was so angry when it happened that I felt myself shake and when I got home and explained what had happened to Johnny I cried.

I've decided to take a couple of weeks break from it and stand back a little.  The organisation is a great organisation and I get a lot out of working there but I don't know how to cope with some of these attitudes.      



  1. I guess in these places volunteers and people running them are under a lot of pressure and tempers get frayed.  There are also jobsworths and people who let the power go to their heads, take delight in being officious.  If you think it’s a good organisation that does good things I hope you find a way you can stick with it and not let the nonsense get to you.

  2. I couldn’t stop my jaw from dropping when I read that. That’s absolutely hideous. Is it worth reporting them or having a go yourself? I don’t care how stressed someone is, there’s absolutely no bloody excuse for saying something like that. And if they’re not stressed, what the bloody hell are they doing there in the first place? That poor woman. It might be hard for someone to go there in the first place. It could put someone off going back. Awful.

  3. I likewise hope you find a way to make it work for you.  At least you’re one of the people who’s got more compassion there and the people you help will appreciate that.

  4. That made me feel sad and angry and rather scared.  I’m sure when you’ve had some space and return to work there, that woman and her children will be very pleased to see you.

  5. I’m with the the girls on this – if you can bring yourself to go back there, it would be a very good thing for the customers.  I really don’t understand what those bloody women are doing there at all if their attitudes are so horrible, ill-tempered and uncaring? 

  6. In fairness, there are a lot of brilliant volunteers there who are a joy to work with and who are great to our customers.  I’m sure that I’ll go back because I get a lot out of it when all’s said and done.  Plubby – Elke the team leader is one of the paid members of staff – which is tricky because her leadership skills are poor.  Her job isn’t a particularly nice job – she was unemployed and sent to the organisation as part of the rules for her receiving unemployment benefit and then she got the job as team leader and she couldn’t turn it down without losing her benefit so I don’t think that she’s there from choice. 

  7. Awful – sounds like your rude grocer would fit in nicely.  I suppose the best we can hope for in any organisation is that the nice folks outnumber the rules-is-rules types for whom civility is an optional extra.  Sorry you had a horrid day.

  8. I can see that she might not be happy with that lack of choice.  However, if she’s been unemployed herself, you’d think she’d have a bit more compassion, wouldn’t you? 

  9. That was really upsetting to read.

  10. That’s just horrendous. I do hope you go back when you’re ready and the officiousness and rudeness don’t put you off.

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