Could you start by telling us a bit about Serve the City: where does the organization have its roots, and what are its objectives?
Caterina: Serve the City is an international volunteering organization. It was founded in 2005 in Brussels – that is where I began working with them. I had a very good experience with them and I thought, “Why not bring that to Rome as well?” because up until recently, Serve the City did not exist in Rome. It’s international in the sense that it’s active in more than 65 cities across the globe, in Europe, Asia, the Americas, Africa, and Australia, but we work on a local level: we want to answer the needs of the city. We partner with homeless shelters, refugee centers, orphanages, and other associations, offering help and support. We also organize activities to improve and care for the urban environment, so the organization has different faces.
How did you go about launching in Rome, and how many people are involved?
Caterina: We started Serve the City in Rome in March 2020 – and Noel is one of the founding members – because we saw that the situation was becoming more critical because of the Covid crisis. Right now, there are around 15 of us, with 12 people involved in the operational team – including Noel and Journey – and more volunteers. The objective is to create a community of volunteers that is multicultural and multinational. When you see the activities that we do, you find that it isn’t necessary to speak Italian fluently, or even at all: our priority is organizing activities that are practical, and often a smile is more than enough. It’s really important for us to work as a community, to create an atmosphere where people feel like they are part of something. We want it to be a meaningful experience that goes both ways, an enriching experience for the people we are helping and for the volunteers.
What are some of the projects that you have been working on?
Caterina: Our activities began in July 2020 with Giovani Sacro Cuore church, located near Termini, who we partnered with to serve food to homeless people who live close to the station. It has been difficult as a new organization not being able to plan all the activities we have in mind because of the pandemic. However, we will launch a project online called Open Doors that will allow young Italians to get in touch with international students or professional workers for language exchanges or mentoring.
Noel and Journey, how did you get involved in Serve the City and what are some of the activities that you have participated in?
Noel: When I first arrived in Rome for graduate studies at AUR, I was looking for a place to volunteer, but I couldn’t find the confidence to meet some of the organizations that I had found online. But the Peace Studies curriculum – the humanitarian aspects, the political and economic impact of war, the role of religion – gave me the confidence to start volunteering in a structured way in order to improve my studies. When I found Serve the City, I felt like I had met my career goals. I joined at the initial stages when they were trying to build up the organization here in Rome, so I was part of the operations team, and I was assigned the task of writing communications.
Journey: My volunteering work has mostly been preparing and distributing food for the homeless near Termini station, and it was a very touching experience, I have to say. The mood was very happy, with people meeting each other, a bit of a language barrier with the Italian but it was still fun, and then when you go to hand the food out the reality of the situation and why you are there really hits home.
Journey, is your involvement also linked to your studies, like Noel, or is it external to them?
Journey: I was studying International Relations and Global Politics to begin with and recently changed to Interdisciplinary Studies, so in a way the volunteering was initially undertaken to aid my studies. I would like to mix a few more things into my degree, like Business Administration, and working with team members from different backgrounds and languages with Serve the City would be helpful for all parts of my studies. That said, I knew before starting school that I wanted to join a volunteering organization in Rome, to immerse myself into the community and to respond to the needs of the community.
Launching in any situation would be a very big challenge, but especially in these circumstances. How did you navigate that?
Caterina: It was very difficult. The upside was that we were able to use the time locked down at home to discuss how to make it work. We gathered a lot of great ideas, but we need to amplify the practical side now. It’s kind of a paradox: there is a lot of help needed, but a lot of limitations on how much help we can give due to Covid restrictions.
Hopefully the participation of AUR students so far has established a strong link and students will continue to get involved in the organization!
Caterina: I hope so too! There was one occasion when we had many students from AUR volunteering with us, when we assembled Covid kits, with things like masks and hand gel, to donate to the homeless. It would be really interesting for Serve the City to develop further and accept more students. There is a stereotype that young people aren’t committed, but what we saw is completely the opposite. From the beginning, they showed a real willingness to work together to help. Volunteering can also be a way to pursue your interests, such as Journey studying International Relations, or you might be studying something completely different but would like to learn skills such as how to build a website or organize an event.
How has being part of Serve the City influenced your own experience of the pandemic?
Noel: Each time I volunteered, I noticed that I came back fulfilled. I feel that by adding something to humanity, to those in need, I am building on my own humanity as well. I feel that by volunteering, I am also helping myself, because it brings such a psychological satisfaction.
Journey: Working with Serve the City showed me a difference side of Rome: it didn’t taint the image of the city, instead it made me want to be more involved and it motivated me to become more a part of the community. It also inspired me to stick with Rome and shape it into a better place, for those who need it. To do what I can, really.
Finally, Noel, can you tell us about your plans to continue to study at PhD level?
Noel: I’m hoping to pursue the topic I developed interest in during my studies at AUR on understanding the role of religion in violence. My project proposal centers on the role of mythology in ethnic conflict, and I will be using the Rwandan genocide to look at the role of mythology in violence and the concept of myth as religion. The stories that I have come across at AUR are helping to shape my PhD studies and I would love to continue to study them further.
Students interested in volunteering for Serve the City are welcome to send a request for a chat at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many thanks to Caterina, Journey, and Noel for taking the time to speak to us about their volunteering work!