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TEDxAmsterdam

Gappie Gezocht | Making an Impact by ‘Being There’

‘Wanted: Gappie, Buddy, Maatje, Stanko, Amigo’. We can read these words on posters all across Amsterdam. They are all terms for ‘friend’ in the city’s various languages and slang. The posters are part of a campaign run by VCA, the central agency for volunteering work in Amsterdam. Together with 23 social organisations they are looking for at least 450 volunteers – so-called ‘buddies’ – to match up with Amsterdammers in need. We talked to VCA’s Simone Timmer to find out more about the initiative.

At first glance, ‘Gappie Gezocht’ might appear as a response to the Corona crisis. Simone tells us, however, that the campaign was prepared prior to the pandemic: “We observed that there was a lot of demand for 1-on-1 volunteering in various areas – help with practical chores, people battling loneliness, coaching, support and help for people struggling with weight or addiction, administrative work, etc.. And while a lot of Amsterdammers are interested in volunteering, becoming a buddy often isn’t their first choice. The work is very independent, and it might seem like a long and big commitment. People also feel like they would be responsible for solving someone else’s problems – a responsibility they’re not willing to take on.”

‘Gappie Gezocht’ directly addresses these worries and insecurities: ‘am I qualified to do this?’, ‘what if we don’t click?’, and ‘is it safe?’. The answers to all of these questions can be found on the website by taking a short quiz. To summarise: everyone can do this work. All you need to do is to step out of your comfort zone, be open-minded, and put yourself at the same level as the person you’re working with. Remember: a buddy is not the same as an aid worker. By emphasising this, VCA tries to lower the bar for new buddies to register. “These ‘help seekers’ don’t need another doctor, therapist, or other specialist. They just need someone to ‘be there’ for them. It’s amazing what difference you can make in someone’s life by just giving them a little time and attention,” says Simone. 

BUDDYING IS A TWO-WAY STREET

This is also clear in the personal experiences of buddies who have already been matched up. Their individual stories are highlighted in a series of portraits and interviews. While some volunteers provide specific help, the general impression is that their buddies mainly need company and a soundboard. A lot of them have struggled with loneliness, either because of addiction, job-loss, old age, or by being in a foreign country where they don’t speak the language very well. Sonia (77) wasn’t sure what to do when all her social activities were canceled due to Corona. She was matched to Christian (30), with whom she now regularly talks over the phone. “We talk about anything – what I am knitting, or what I have read. What has started with a simple phone call has grown into warm contact.” What Jan-Willem (50) appreciates most about his contact with Heleen (35) is that “[s]he makes time for me, and talking to her helps me understand my own feelings a lot better.” Rafiek (31): “My contact with Maxime (30) prevents loneliness, and helps me get out.” Buddies René (74) and Zowik (31) agree: “The most important thing is that we’re friends.” 

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Buddies Maxime (30) and Rafiek (31). Photgrapher: Jackie Mulder / VCA Media

Another thing that speaks out of these stories, is that buddy work has mutual benefits. The volunteers all indicate that their lives have been positively impacted as well. Marian (70), who teaches Dutch to the Moroccan Sonya (43), has developed a warm relationship with her buddy’s kids. “I’m their bonus grandma!” Paloma (22) describes how her activities with Philip (83) have broadened her own horizons. “They are just as fun for me as they are for him.” Maxime enjoys having Rafiek as someone with whom she can vent, and Heleen shares that her conversations with Jan-Willem have even caused her to look at herself more positively. Simone: “Buddy work makes you feel meaningful, which in turn makes you feel good. Giving makes people healthier and happier. And all we need to do is to just embrace the other.”

FINDING A MATCH

A thorough matching procedure has been crucial to these stories of successVCA collects all vacancies for buddies from the 23 partner organisations, and puts them in a central database. They are divided over six categories: Language & Education, Gezelligheid & A Sympathetic Ear, Coaching & Guidance, Practical Help, Sports & Movement, and Short-term Chores. This way, in addition to sending an open application, volunteers can directly reply to calls that really appeal to them. It might reduce the anxiety over qualifications or a potential click, and make it more appealing to a diverse audience to apply. Simone’s experience backs this up, “Traditionally, these jobs are mainly fulfilled by older people. Because we need a lot more buddies, we also hope to reach a younger audience with our campaign. And it seems to work – we get more and more applications from students, for example. They might also be more interested because loneliness is an increasing problem amongst students due to the pandemic. The work provides them with social contact and a purpose.”

After the initial application, either to a specific vacancy or an ‘open’ one, potential buddies are contacted by a mediator. They will talk with the applicant about their skills and interests, and will determine whether he or she is a good fit. The mediator will also be able to address any questions or uncertainties with regard to the work. Once a match has been made, the potential buddies will meet for an introductory meeting – a ‘first date’, to stick to the matchmaking lingo. If there is a mutual click, the buddies will continue their contact. If there isn’t, both parties will be matched to someone else. This seems a rare scenario, though. According to Simone, she has yet to hear about a ‘failed’ match. Generally, the buddies feel an immediate connection, based on shared interests, backgrounds, or sense of humour. And that’s really all you need in order to be successful. 

Are you longing to do something for the community, and to make a difference in someone’s life? Sign up as a ‘Gappie’ via https://www.vca.nu/maatje/. The campaign will be running until the end of 2020. Buddies can still apply after that, but individual vacancies will be incorporated into the general database. Due to the local nature of the programme, VCA is mainly looking for Dutch-speakers. Sometimes, however, they will post vacancies suitable for English speakers. Those can be found on https://www.vca.nu/english/

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