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Gagik (24, Armenia), Violetta (20, Estonia), Etienne (26, France), and Katariina (27, Finland) began their long-term European Solidarity Corps volunteering project for the Outward Bound Croatia in January 2021. They got the chance to experience life in Croatia for 11 months, and in this blog post they share their thoughts about the past year.
“From the moment I knew I was going to join the European Solidarity Corps I was very excited and started to prepare for my departure two months beforehand,” Gagik says. “Despite the travel difficulties caused by the pandemic, I managed to join the project having a great support by my sending and hosting organizations.”
The months flew by fast but the volunteers all agree their stay in Croatia was an interesting and fruitful experience they will remember for the rest of their lives.
Ready For Adventure?
So, how and why did they decide to leave their old lives behind and join a local NGO in Zagreb for almost a year?
They agree moving to another country for such a long period of time is a big decision. But, according to them, everything that comes after making that decision is more than satisfying and helps a lot with fostering personal growth, intercultural learning, improving social skills and getting rid of the boundaries we develop staying only in our own countries.
Etienne already had some volunteering experience from the previous year in Tunisia.
“That experience was unusually rich. I wanted to continue the volunteering experience so I embarked on this program of the European Solidarity Corps. And I am not disappointed! ”
“Before coming to Croatia, I had already graduated university last year and didn’t have a permanent job at the time,” Katariina says. “I wasn’t completely sure what direction to take next, but I wanted to do something meaningful, learn new things and develop myself outside formal education or work, preferably somewhere abroad. Therefore, I started looking for a volunteering opportunity and this one just seemed right. And it was!”
“Sometimes we all have the feeling of running on a loop like a hamster,” Gagik says. “That’s what I was feeling in my country before this project. Working everyday, studying and everything at the same time, without giving space for creative exploration. I decided that I’m too young for that and I need more time to learn and explore the world instead of contributing to this robot society lifestyle.
This ESC programme saved me from sticking to this lifestyle and from being convinced that success is all about having a scheduled work and bunch of emails, being busy with meetings and projects that just distract you from the real world happening around.“
International Youth Projects
The volunteers are happy with the diversity of their tasks and activities.
In addition to the administrative work in the office in Zagreb, they also took part in the international youth projects, such as short-term ESC volunteering, Erasmus+ Youth Exchanges, and Training Courses, all implemented by OBC.
One of the most interesting things in taking part in the European youth projects is, of course, meeting new people, sharing cultures, and exchanging knowledge. Indeed, Etienne says that even though these projects are an effective source of learning about a variety of topics such as environmental protection, they were above all an opportunity for great meetings.
“We met people from all over Europe there. These discussions and exchanges have allowed us to progress and learn about the world and ourselves. Only the confrontation with others and the exchange will make it possible to combat the force of prejudice.”
Office and Fieldwork
However, of course before the actual project there is a lot of work that goes into organizing and administration. Starting with the project application, the volunteers got to help and participate in all the stages of a project implementation, from planning to implementation as well as reporting afterwards.
Katariina says that even though she hadn’t worked in an office much before, participating in all the administrative work that goes into project planning and implementation gave her a lot of great experience to benefit from in the future.
For Violetta, too, being involved in the whole process was a great way to get an overview of this kind of youth work, its pros as well as the struggles.
As the main field of OBC is the organization of outdoor educational programs, the volunteers sometimes also assisted the instructors in the preparation and activities of the expeditions.
For Gagik, a vital part of his experience was spending a lot of time in nature:
“I was working for an environmental organization for a long time in a big polluted city, without actually feeling the presence of nature in my daily life. After joining Outward Bound Croatia, I did things I’ve never done, like rock-climbing, expeditions, hiking, and abseiling. All these activities were happening in an intercultural environment, which made the experience even better”.
A Small Family
Clearly the volunteers got to experience a lot of new and interesting things this year. They had the chance to travel and get to know Croatia and its culture and language.
But what did they learn and what kind of values will they take with them back home?
The volunteers all agree that they will take with them a lot of good memories, great connections, a lot of new knowledge and experience and also great pictures, because Croatia, they say, is a very beautiful country.
But, most importantly, this group of volunteers will take with them their friendship. After living and working together for one year, they have become a small family and already know each other very well. “I think this is one of the greatest achievements of this project for me personally,” Gagik says.
Unlock Your Potential
“The most important thing I’ve learned during this project is that we all are much more and we can do much more than we actually think we can,” Gagik states. “It is crucial for our personal growth to know that there is no time to wait for a perfect moment or perfect opportunity, we just have to go against the challenges and things that may seem unrealistic or stupid from the first sight.
Another thing that is worth mentioning is that I have become more resilient toward unforeseen situations and more ready to challenge myself without fearing that something will go out of order. This is a feature we all need to develop, I think.”
Skills and Competences
Violetta also had a productive year:
“I learned a lot about office jobs and project writing and management,” she says. “I also gained lots of new skills like climbing, knot making, gas tank changing, and cooking for over 50 people. And tons of other interesting skills and experiences.
But of course what I’m taking with myself are the amazing memories and emotions that we created with the people who became my friends, flatmates, colleagues and family.”
“This year taught me a lot of professional skills, like organizing projects, youth work and non-formal learning,” Katariina says.
“But I’ve also come to further realise the meaning and importance of volunteering and community service. It’s a great way to contribute to local communities and societies, and should be promoted more since lot of people don’t still know about the opportunities provided by ESC.
We moreover got to spend time in the small, local communities and villages around Gospić, Lika, which moreover was a great way to see and experience that part of Croatia you won’t see in the tourist advertisements. And for that I feel grateful that I saw so much of this country and got to experience life here.“
For Etienne, the two volunteering periods (in Tunisia and Croatia) have undoubtedly been the two richest experiences of his existence. “Evolution is linked to experience. I evolve because I experience,” he says, and adds that it is difficult to summarize the concrete contribution of such experiences, as their influence is deep and diffuse in the life of the individual who carries out them.
In terms of professional development, Etienne states he gained a lot:
“The study of the context, the analysis of the needs of the communities, the identification of project partners, and finally the organization of events are all new skills I acquired during my volunteering.”
Etienne says that these experiences have strengthened his openness to others. “The many meetings and immersion in a different cultural environment have increased my understanding of the phenomena in these different societies. In a more profound sense, they have strengthened my sensitivity to others and affirmed my interest in interculturality.
These experiences revealed to me my main professional motivations: interculturality and improving the lives of people. I will therefore try to include my professional project at the junction of these two elements.”
Advice for Future Volunteers
All the volunteers highly recommend taking part in an ESC or other volunteering project in your own country or abroad. They feel like volunteering is a great way to contribute to a better future for our local communities, as even the seemingly small things can create a huge difference.
Finally, they have some advice for the future ESC-volunteers:
“Volunteering is one of the only ways I know to travel on a budget and gain work experience at the same time. And you get to help somebody. It’s so meaningful to have experiences like this in your life because you gain so many new perspectives. It’s important to understand different lifestyles and get to know people from different backgrounds than yours. I think that is the main takeaway for me,” Katariina says.
“And as for the advice, don’t forget to plan your free days on time! There are so many places to visit here.”
“Volunteering is a real chance for action, and more importantly, for freedom in action,” says Etienne.
He points out that as he also did, the volunteer can to some extent determine the scope of their volunteering action in the light of the local context and create their own, personal project that can be executed during the volunteering period independently.
Gagik’s advice is to be brave and not to be afraid of the unknown:
“Don’t be scared that something will go wrong or you are not ready for the experience, as the point is you will never be ready until you start the path,” he says. “Of course every experience is different, it may not meet or it may exceed your expectations, but either way the outcome is always positive with a lot of learning.”
“Sometimes being just brave and curious is enough to make a meaningful change for yourself, and help the world to become a better place for everybody!” Violetta adds.
If your curiosity awoke, find out more about the European Solidarity Corps and embark on a volunteering journey with us!
This project has been funded with support from the European Commission.
This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.