While others were happily unwrapping their Christmas presents, Isabel Sophie Oberländer (27) was helping the homeless. Every Christmas Eve, Munich’s famous Hofbräuhaus is the venue for a dinner for homeless and destitute persons, which is organized by a local, private welfare association. For Isabel, the desire to give assistance to those in need is a perfectly natural impulse at Christmas time. “After all, that’s the point of Christmas,” she says, “taking the time to focus on the important things, and helping others.” A colleague in the soup kitchen run by the Sisters of Mercy, in which she has helped out for more than five years, gave her the tip about the Christmas dinner in the Hofbräuhaus. “I feel very strongly that one should give something back to society,” she affirms. “Many people complain about rising inequality in our society – without ever thinking of doing anything about it.” That’s not something that can be said of Isabel herself.
A native of Munich, she is studying art history at LMU. At the moment she is doing a practical with the photographer Paul Weinberg in South Africa. And although this is part of her study program, she wanted to help the less well-off there too. “In comparison to Munich, the level of poverty in Cape Town is much higher,” she says, before casually mentioning that she was once robbed there. But that incident has not dimmed her sympathy for the city’s poor. “They don’t do that sort of thing because they happen to feel like it. It results from the degree of inequality in the society around them.” She is working in Greatmore Studios, a cultural center that is located in a township which the poorest of the poor call home. Local people can use the studios at no cost, and the Center provides them with materials and tools free of charge. Isabel believes that “artistic creativity is an underused resource that can offer people an escape route from poverty.”
She became involved in social projects when she was at school. For example, she spent one of her summer holidays in Colombia, doing voluntary work for the Fundación Florencer – at a school for handicapped children. “In Colombia the handicapped are unwanted, they are an embarrassment. That’s why it’s so important for that they go to school,” she says. When she wanted to work at the school again a few years later, she was told that it had been closed in the meantime – owing to lack of funds. But this setback only spurred her to redouble her own efforts. She began to composed hand-written letters to potential donors for the local initiative “Your Munich” (Dein München). The association uses the monetary and material donations it receives to make life a little easier for children in socially disadvantaged families. – At this point, it is hardly surprising to learn that Isabel also regularly helps the child in a single-parent family with school homework.
However, there came the day when Isabel had to acknowledge that, given the high cost of living in Munich, the multiplicity of her voluntary activities meant that she was finding it hard to make ends meet. She comes from a non-academic background, and both of her parents are pensioners. To avoid placing a financial burden on them, she took every part-time job she could get her hands on. She worked for an auctioneering firm and as a babysitter, gave private tuition, did modelling jobs for a marketing agency and organized vegan dinners in a greenhouse. But this restless round of activities took its toll, and she found ever more difficult to concentrate on her studies. “It didn’t matter whether I was feeling unwell or had to take the night shift, I had to keep working to pay for my studies,” she says. – Then she hit on the idea of applying for a Deutschlandstipendium.
Isabel’s highly developed sense of civic responsibility, as expressed in her commitment to inclusion and integration, greatly impressed one of the scheme’s supporters – who agreed to sponsor the award. The private foundation involved wishes to remain anonymous. This is not unusual in such a context – when the benefactors involved are individuals who are well-known in other spheres or the donors are unassuming personalities who have no desire to see their names in the papers. One thing is clear: Isabel and the sponsor of her award are both strongly motivated supporters of social projects. “Our meeting was a real shot in the arm for me, it gave me new energy.” And thanks to the financial aid provided by her Deutschlandstipendium, she can continue to combine her art studies with her work for the disadvantaged. “I only wish that more people would become involved,” she says. “If every one of the 120,000 students in Munich were to devote one hour every week to voluntary social work, just think how much they could change!”