“Radical acts of kindness” – volunteering against poverty

Mátyás Sain

By Mátyás Sain, on September 14th, 2017

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Malnutrition and poverty is a global phenomenon, and affects European cities even today. In Hungary – a relatively prosperous country in global terms – many people still suffer from poverty. Malnutrition in cities, and even starvation in certain rural areas, are not rare. Statistics show that more than 40% of Hungary’s population lives in a household where net income is less than the subsistence level. For single parent families this number is over 75% (Source). Roma minority groups are particularly affected by the risk of poverty. In recent years, mayors, associations and volunteers have been standing up to help families and individuals in need and to fight against poverty. Here are three examples of their efforts.

1. Cyclist community: actions to help the homeless

radical_acts_BBMThe first comes from the capital city of Hungary. The Budapest Bike Maffia (BBM) is an informal non-profit organisation and a gradually growing movement, which began its charity actions with a few volunteers on Christmas Eve, 2011.

Zoltán Havasi, founder of the Budapest Bike Maffia, describes the beginnings of the movement: “It was shocking to see so many people sleeping rough in the streets. Everyone, both young and old, must realise the urging need to help.

The initiative uses an innovative approach, merging the elements of social work, volunteering, donation and cycling. Volunteers cook regularly in Szimpla Kert, an old factory  turned into a huge open-air cinema and pub, in the frame of the so called “Common Cauldron”. Visitors to Szimpla buy the daily menu and give donations. Money raised is spent on food from which the volunteers make sandwiches to be delivered by bike to the homeless living in the streets of Budapest.

Numbers show that their contribution is not purely symbolic: in one week in January 2017, for instance, 3700 sandwiches, 1400 portions of hot food, 50 kg of fruit – as well as several blankets, sleeping bags, clothes, hygiene products and vitamins – were delivered to homeless centres, shelters and homeless people in the streets.

Another innovative action of BBM is entitled “My Budapest Photo Project”, now running for a second year. The volunteers distribute disposable cameras to 100 homeless people who take photos of their everyday experience and way of life in the street. Of the selected photos calendars are published for sale. The project not only raises funds – but also awareness.

The BBM, which started as grass-root charity, now works regularly with the social service department of the Local Authority.

These activities do not only benefit homeless people, but also the people participating  in the organisation: the collection of funds, the preparation of sandwiches and delivery is a great opportunity for bonding among the volunteers. One of them said: “I believe that people are willing to help, everyone dislikes indifference and rather wants to help, but we need information, opportunity and company. In the Bike Maffia we find all these.

In 2017 Bike Maffia received the Audience Award SocialMarie. SocialMarie is the oldest prize for social innovation in Europe and honours 15 outstanding projects every year in the field of social innovation. Havasi says, “Our greatest impact should be the growth of a new generation of solidarity and care and committed collective actions…”. The Budapest Bike Maffia attracts a growing number of volunteers: students join in the distribution services and recently even a large German company joined the BBM in distributing 800 sandwiches in order to provide its employees team building as well as an insight to the culture of volunteering.

2. “Vegetable commando” mission – helping families in need in the neighborhood.

vegetable_commandoZsuzsa Matolcsi and Krisztián Kertész, two residents of Wekerle Estate, in Budapest’s District 19, started their charity action in 2016, inspired by the example of Bike Maffia. Though their first idea was to organise upgrading courses for children of deprived families, after consulting with the local Social Service Centre they realised that undernourishment was a more acute challenge for deprived families, and required urgent action. Both the founders were regular visitors of the local farmers market, and they decided to collect donated food there and deliver it to the families in need. Acquiring a stall on the market they asked people to buy a little extra food and donate it to families in need.

Dubbed “Vegetable Commando”, the initiative proved successful partly because there were already several active non-profit organisations in Wekerle Estate, and voluntary community actions were well-known and popular. “When we moved to Wekerle in 2004 I soon realised the special social climate… I was surprised to see that so many people are engaged in voluntary work and offer their spare time for this purpose. This was a very pleasant experience. I had always wanted to expand my living space beyond the door…,” says Krisztián Kertész remembering the beginnings of the initiative. “The experience gained in any voluntary work can be easily adapted in other bottom-up activities.”

Vegetable Commando began with the transfer of collected food to five families whose addresses were given by the Social Service Centre. “We got the idea from the Budapest Bike Maffia. They had a similar initiative entitled Vitamin Commando. Our version is a bit different. Our target families are constant. Our help is long-term and calculable, so our families can be sure that for instance on Thursday the Vegetable Commando will come and bring enough vegetable and fruit for several days.” Side by side with customers’ donations, salespeople are also willing to offer their products that are left at the end of the day. An organic farm in the region also provides them with vegetables in return for logistic services to deliver vegetable boxes. Sometimes, last summer for instance, the quantity of collected vegetable and fruit was enough for the weekly provision of a large social centre (a shelter for mothers) – as well as the families on their list.

In addition to supplying food, the volunteers have developed personal relationships with the families. “Every time when we delivered food we asked them of their news and needs. They mentioned for instance that the refrigerator had broken down – and we could help – and we asked the children of what happened in the school… we feel responsible for these families and give them all the support we can,” says Zsuzsa, reflecting on the experience of the last year.

The implementation of the original plan, the provision of upgrading classes has begun too. “After a half year’s relationship we invited the children to play, talk and learn. The children agreed and the parents too.”  The coaching programme is under way since October 2016, every Saturday afternoon, three hours in the Social Service Centre of the District.

3. Rural Roma community sets an example

In globalised markets where cities are no longer dependent on their rural hinterland for the provision of agricultural products several tiny rural communities located in southwest Hungary are paying the price of the break in urban-rural relations.

The village of Cserdi is one of those rural communities facing extreme poverty conditions. Two thirds of the population, including the mayor, are Roma. László Bogdán, mayor of the 400 inhabitants of Cserdi, has decided that one local response to everyday crucial problems may be the restoration of the traditional rural work culture by producing local food under the National Public Work Programme.

Lasipe1Led by the mayor, local people started to work for subsistence on a 15-hectare area of arable land. Later on they built a 3,000 square meter plastic greenhouse, where they can produce tomatoes and paprika almost all year round. They also process part of what they grow to make jam, a kind of ratatouille and other products according to traditional Roma recipes. These products are sold under the “Lasipe” brand that means goodness in the Romani Lovari language.

Thanks to fertile land and committed, industrious and skillful work, the ample yield is now more than enough for self-subsistence. The community therefore decided to support poor families in the centre of the region, the city of Pécs. One year later, in December 2014, organisers of Budapest Bike Maffia received an unexpected phone call from László Bogdán, asking for logistical help to deliver food to poor families in Budapest’s 8th District with a strong presence of Roma. In the following days the mayor and four people from the village personally transferred a ton of potatoes, onions and garlic to the deprived families of Budapest District 8.

The action of donating food from a faraway Roma community to families of the capital city is of course more symbolic than rational. Indeed, the successes of the local programme and the charitable actions of the Roma community have gained reputation in Hungary and elsewhere, and are a popular topic in the media. And this year László Bogdán was invited by the Consul General of New York to take part in consultations in several US cities.

Hungarian Spectrum article: László Bogdán, the Roma miracle worker of Cserdi

Social innovation and combatting poverty with URBACT

One of the important roles of National URBACT Points is to help draw the big picture of the context from which URBACT projects emerge. Within this context, many grassroots initiatives can provide good practices and inspiration to URBACT networks working for similar objectives such as URBinclusion Network, VITAL CITIES Network or Stay Tuned Network.

The common features of the above presented practices are innovation, collective effort, community spirit and collective experience. In the nature of their solutions they fit well in with the spirit of URBACT methodology.

Many URBACT projects are committed to finding effective, sustainable and relevant solutions for combatting social exclusion, poverty and deprivation, minimising inequalities and improving access to services. Good practices are especially important in fields where the capacities of Local Authorities are limited compared with the scale of the challenges.

Find out about the National URBACT Point for Hungary – in Hungarian


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