Volunteers Wanted: Locals Help Save Germany's Shrinking Towns

PHOTO: Altena, Germany

While a graying population affects all of Germany, small rural towns have been hit the hardest. To counteract the demographic trend and make up for lacking resources, many communities are asking citizens to pitch in -- for free.

The school bus was one of the first things to go. Then, one by one, store owners and residents pulled out, leaving behind crumbling buildings and boarded-up windows. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the small German town of Altena is all but deserted.

"This is where I grew up," says Ulrich Hins, a 71-year-old retired resident, pointing toward a pale yellow house along Altena's main pedestrian thoroughfare. Down the street, "To rent" signs hang in darkened storefronts. "Now even the bakery only opens once a week," Hins says.

Altena lies in the rugged hills south of Dortmund in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. It was once known for its steel mills and booming textile industry, but decades of economic stagnation have led younger generations to search for better prospects elsewhere, leaving many older residents behind to fend for themselves. From 32,000 residents in the early 1970s, only about 18,000 remain. Local government projections show that, by 2020, more than 35 percent of residents will be over the age of 60.

While a graying population affects Germany as a whole -- about 27 percent is over the age of 60, according to the Federal Statistical Office -- rural communities like Altena have been hit the hardest. With declining birthrates, high mortality and younger families moving to cities, many residents in Altena wonder whether their town will survive at all.

But Andreas Hollstein, the mayor of Altena, has a plan to at least slow the effects of what may be an inevitable decline. He is asking his citizens to help out -- for free. "The truth is that the state is reaching its limit, and we can't finance everything we'd like to," Hollstein says. "When that's the case, we have to go back to the basics and rely on our citizens."

'Civic Engagement Is Fundamental'

These days, younger and older residents in Altena pitch in where they can. Since 2008, they can sign up at Stellwerk, a volunteer coordination center, to help their struggling community. A volunteer-run bus, called the "B├╝rgerbus" (or "citizen bus"), ferries older residents around to buy groceries across town or use the swimming pool in the next village. Retirees babysit children of single or working parents, and younger volunteers teach arts and crafts to nursing home residents. Even the local high school has gotten involved. As part of the seventh-to-ninth grade curriculum, students have set up a business to help elderly residents with daily chores -- from walking the dog to mowing the lawn.

As a result, in 2008 and 2011, Altena brought home the first prize in an "Idea Competition" sponsored by North Rhine-Westphalia. The award recognizes particularly innovative projects at the municipal level. "We have over 1,000 citizens who have stepped up," Hollstein says. "For such a small town, that's incredible."

And Altena isn't the only town to get residents involved. A study by the nonprofit Berlin Institute for Population and Development finds that, with a shrinking population affecting two-thirds of Germany's rural communities, private and state-run projects are now focusing on community-based solutions in an attempt to counteract demographic trends.

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