Thursday, August 9, 2012

Laura reports on volunteering in Italy

Laura reports on volunteering in Italy

The three months I spent volunteering a Villa Buri can be summed up in one sentence: Always expect the unexpected. I arrived in Verona having very little idea of what I would be doing, and very few expectations. My first impression of the villa and the park was that it was a beautiful, calm place. The villa is  nestled in a bend of the River Adige, a few miles from the  centre of Verona, surrounded by a large park. I joined two other international volunteers and worked with the local Italian team to look after the park.

The international volunteers were three girls, but when I arrived the first surprise was that only one of the other girls had turned up: Agnes from Sweden. We lived in a small house by the main gate of the villa. Part of our job was to open and close the villa gates. The second surprise when we started work the next morning was that although the working language of the project was nominally English, everyone spoke in Italian. So my Italian improved faster than I would have believed possible. It is amazing what you can learn when you really need to!

The first job Agnes and I were given was to feed the kittens. It turned out that Villa Buri was home to many stray cats and these kittens had been abandoned in the park. I spent the rest of my stay putting out multiple bowls of cat food every day.
One of our other regular tasks was to empty the rubbish bins in the park, and sort out the things that could be recycled, i.e. metal, plastic, cardboard and glass. This was an occasionally unpleasant job, but it was also oddly fascinating. We were very confused by the people who left at least ten kilos of grapes in the bins over the course of about three weeks. We also planted an awful lot of miniature winter vegetables in the Orto.

In September we spent a lot of time pruning trees, collecting seeds and creating new flower beds. I discovered that hawthorn was vicious, but not as vicious as the mosquitoes. Agnes counted the bites on her leg one day, and found she had over 60. When we discovered some fly swats in the back of a cupboard and could go mosquito hunting you have never seen two happier people! One of the other highlights was the local Gelateria – we went at least three times a week.
The next surprise came not in the form of stray animals, but stray people. Five Ethiopian girls came to stay at Villa Buri. They were refugees from Libya, having moved there to escape famine in their

native land and then fled Libya when the war started there. We invited the girls to come and work with us hoping it would help them to improve their non-existent Italian. Communication was interesting, as only one of them spoke a little English and none of them really spoke any Italian. Most of what need to be said could be communicated by a combination of demonstration and mime. This occasionally made you look pretty silly, but was surprisingly effective. The girls were always willing to get stuck into any task and were great fun, always ready with a smile.

In October the weather changed from the warm sunshine we had been enjoying to become cooler and foggier. We spent more time weeding the Orto Botanico, the Villa's large herb garden. The vegetable garden also had to be tidied up for the winter and the remaining fruit and vegetables harvested. This was also the season for the kiwi and kaki (persimmons) of which we had hundreds. We even took a wheelbarrow round the streets to try selling them to the neighbours!

By November the weather took on a wintry edge. With the cold weather, the third international volunteer finally arrived, Katharina from Germany. The weather also meant we spent more time indoors, doing jobs like sewing curtains and painting furniture in an effort to make our little house even cosier for the next volunteers. We also went to help harvest the olives at Don Calabria, a community for men with mental health issues.

 At the beginning of December it was time  to leave Villa Buri. It was an unforgettable experience. The language barrier was often challenging, as was adjusting to a much slower pace of life. But I learnt many new skills: how to grow and care for many kinds of herbs and vegetables, how to cook proper Italian food and that you can have an entire conversation with a few words. I will miss having the peace and beauty of the park right on the doorstep, and the warmth of the people I met there. And remember: Always expect the unexpected!

Manon reports on volunteering in Japan

 Manon reports on volunteering in Japan
After spending about 2 weeks visiting major cities in Japan, I left the main island of Honshu for Hokkaido. Destination? Onuma Quasi-National Park (大沼国定公園, Onuma  Kokutei Kouen), at the southernmost tip of the island, near Hakodate city (函館). The aim of the workcamp? 1 ½ weeks of mostly environmental work. Along with six other volunteers (two of them Japanese and the rest international), we built rafts to depollute water and cut some plants for forestry work. I did not know much about environmental work before this workcamp. Eighteen rafts and some tree-cutting later, here is what I learned:
1.       Building rafts: It may seem strange just hearing about it, but our main work was to build rafts to depollute lake water. Explanation: Onuma Park has three lakes. Two of them, Lake Onuma and Lake Konuma (大沼 and 小沼) are quite polluted. Visibility of the water is low, some species have become extinct; there is little underwater life in general. At first, people thought this was due to man-made pollution. However, they soon realized that it was caused by intensive agriculture and animal grazing instead. Worrying about the long-term consequences of this process, a university professor decided to design a project to protect the lakes.
·         Why are the lakes important locally? They are vital to agriculture, as they provide water for irrigation. They mean a lot to the people because the national park is quite a beautiful area and home to many species of plants and animals. Tourism is also one of the main activities that people live off of.
·         Why was it important to set up this project? Other than the local degradation aspect, this pollution problem has a wider impact. The lake water goes into the sea. Not interfering at the root of the problem would mean spreading the pollution to other places. On the other hand, solving the pollution problem early causes less trouble to other people. The rafts thus represent a sustainable means to prevent further pollution.
·         How do the rafts help to depollute?  The rafts improve the visibility of the water so that underwater life can redevelop. Their main function is to trap algae floating on the surface of the water into a net. By bringing in more light, there is more underwater oxygen production, and the water becomes a more habitable space. Roots and dirt are also placed on top of the rafts, so that new plants can grow and wildlife is once again attracted to the lake.  (Esthetically, I thought it had a third advantage of making the rafts become virtually invisible. Ducks seemed to like them as well, as they made their nests on the rafts.)
·          Do they work?  From what is known, they do seem to have a positive impact on the lakes. According to a series of recent surveys, Onuma Lake has been gaining on average 20 cm per year in visibility (80 cm visibility in 2007, 120 cm in 2009.)

Building rafts

2.       Cutting plants: For two days, we participated in another activity, aimed at protecting the forest (rather than the lakes) of the park. We worked with the forest rangers of Onuma to clear paths in one area of the park. Like 40 other percent of forests in Japan, the forest in Onuma Park is man-made, rather than natural. The forest rangers are responsible for its conservation, and aim to restore it to a natural forest state over a period of about 100 years. Clearing the paths helps them patrol the forest. Our work meant simply cutting unwanted plants, but it also had the effect of protecting special species from parasite plants. (Potential damage can come from animals or other plants, if those use all the nutrients in the soil or monopolize all of the available sunlight).  This work was therefore more straightforward than the raft-making, but it was also more physically demanding: we worked our way by going slowly uphill and the forest was very humid.
Other activities: Towards the end of the workcamp, we took part in a third activity, with a cultural focus. We had the chance of helping at an o-matsuri (お祭り), a Japanese festival.  It was a sort of o-Bon (お盆) matsuri, a festival held to remember and celebrate the dead. Families write the names of their dead on lanterns and put them on the lake to float. The spirits of the dead are supposed to be attracted to these lights and follow them. In Japan, this festival is generally held in early July or early August; however, because of tourism issues in Onuma, the local government decided to have it at a different time.  It was touching to see it take place, especially because of the earthquake and tsunami which happened in March.
As a group, we wanted to make the most of the festival, therefore we unanimously decided to attend it while wearing yukata (浴衣). Yukatas are a sort of summer kimono that people (both men and women) wear for the festivals. (They can also be worn on a daily basis, generally by the elderly, and the less fancy ones can be used to sleep in). We wore them for the lantern ceremony, to enjoy the o-matsuri and to watch hanabi (花火, literally ‘flowery fire’), the fireworks. 
The o-matsuri and wearing the yukata were the cultural highlight to this workcamp. However, they were not the only cultural experience we had; we were able to experience a lot more. We slept on futons (布団), in the traditional style, ate on a traditional low table (without chairs), and tried some local specialties. While touring the village upon our arrival, we had free o-dango (お団子), a typical Japanese sweet. We also tried local ice cream and cheese, as milk is also renowned in the area. 抹茶ソフトクレムはおいしいです ! (Matcha sofuto kuremu  wa oishi desu!,  Matcha –Japanese traditional green tea- ice cream is delicious!) Last but not least, we tastedジンギスカン (Jingisu Kan), a kind of dish with a special meat named after… the warrior! (I think it was named as such in an attempt to mock him.)
Conclusion: This workcamp was a very intense 10 days where we were able to experience many things. The aim of the workcamp was well-explained to us. We could understand the type of work we were doing and why we were doing it. We were also treated very kindly by the people we worked with and there was an excellent atmosphere within our group. This made the activities interesting and enjoyable. I did have some doubts about the effectiveness of our work at some point, but I do feel like it was important in the end, and that I have gained a lot from this workcamp. It will remain an amazing memory. 皆、ありがとうございました ! (Minna, arigatou gozaimashita; thank you so much everyone!)

Our volunteer Regina from Argentina reports about her volunteering experience in the UK

“If you think you are too small to make a change, then you’ve never slept in a closed room with a mosquito”.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              African Proverb

                I’ve been asked by Concordia UK to write about my experience as a volunteer of the ROBBS Bursary Programme. I am a member of Subir al Sur, an Argentine organisation that works in the strengthening of youth groups in different parts in Argentina, by promoting local and international volunteering. It is hard to use words to describe the whole month, but to sum it up I can definitely say: AMAZING! I warn you, reader, this article will be EXTREMELY boring for those who like to read about terrible news or poor and sad experiences, for it will be loaded of POSITIVE adjectives in such an amount that you will start doubting whether everything happened for real or it was just a very pretty dream. Well, let me tell you, and I have witnesses, that this month was enough time to make a change, at least in myself, and this is real, for sure.
                My first experience was at Moulsecoomb Primary School and Moulsecoomb Forest Garden and Wildlife Project. We were eight volunteers and a camp leader participating in a 15-day workcamp, sleeping in the School’s gym, joining the children’s classrooms and working in the Community Garden. Well, Moulsecoomb is supposed to be a “deprived area” inside Brighton and Hove, and I could tell that there are many problems such as violence, drug abuse, alcoholism, etc, underneath the beauty of the streets and the important Universities. Nevertheless, I don’t know if it’s because of my extreme optimism or the fact that I come from a country where “deprived areas” are areas where there are not even basic public services, but Moulsecoomb for me is a diamond in the rough. I have to say that the Primary School’s way of teaching, their willingness to transmit to the children the importance of communication, the expression of their opinions and feelings, the relevance of working with and for the community, and actually doing it, teaching it by giving the example, was inspiring to see. Everyone I met working at the Primary School and the Community Garden is committed to the community and is working to make the best out of Moulsecoomb, mainly for the children that live there. All the School and Community Garden’s Staff members and volunteers are so involved with their community and so confident of the fact that the only way of dealing with harsh environments is working together towards a different and better future, which results in stimulating and exciting everyone that joins the project.
                During my second weekend in UK, Concordia invited me to the North-South Training that is held every year for volunteers that will participate in projects on the South part of the world, and for people interested in joining some of these projects eventually. It was an intense weekend where I got to meet many people with different backgrounds but two things in common: they were all from the UK, and all had been wondering about the idea of “change” in a particular way: by volunteering somewhere far from their home country. “Change”, I mean, in a wide and subjective form and definition; “change” conceived in a different way for every different individual. In this sense, it may mean an internal change, a social or a political change, etc. It was important to get to know what their fears and expectations are before leaving to their projects, so as to work on them before they arrive to Argentina. The training is very successful in raising questions that everyone should ask themselves before joining a North-South project: What does being a volunteer mean?, How am I going to deal with cultural differences? If any conflict arises, how am I going to cope with it? How do I think I will be feeling outside my comfort zone? Am I willing to learn from other cultures? These questions help the volunteer reflect upon important matters and situations that may happen during a project. The awareness that naturally comes with the questions help the volunteer be more prepared for the trip.
                The ROBBS Programme is not only a volunteering programme, but has another important objective that is getting to know other organisations in the UK that promote international volunteering, in the way Concordia and Subir al Sur promote it, as an intercultural experience. That is why Concordia sent me to London to meet Nigel from VAP UK, and to Cardiff, to meet the members of UNA Exchange. This experience was enriching in many ways, but mainly in an institutional level. I got to interview members of organisations that work in a similar way as we do in Argentina, and was able to exchange experiences and information, for both of us to improve.
Regina volunteering in Wales

               In Wales, I was invited to take part of a weekend project in the valley, in a place called Abercynon. This project was very different from what I had experienced before, due to the fact that we were only two volunteers and one coordinator, working in a Community Garden, together with its manager and his helpers. It was a hard-working weekend, where I learnt to make a fence, cleared weed from an area full of growing trees, dug a pipe trench and carried 20 wheel barrels loaded with soil to cover the trench to protect the pipe. But as tiring as it sounds the satisfaction of doing it and actually seeing the results of such hard work was more than enough to compensate the effort. It was a beautiful project and I enjoyed it so much!
                There are many, many things unsaid in this short article but I thought that the best way of describing my experience was by telling a bit about the different projects and people I met thanks to the Programme. I want to make a special mention to Concordia’s Team for the support they gave me from the very beginning and their constant motivation. I will be forever grateful!
                If someone is lucky enough to join this programme, I would suggest they seize every day, knowing that every minute is important to enjoy and learn from the inspiring people they will meet during the trip and to let the beauty of the places penetrate them. Everything happens so fast! And you never know how far the impact of your presence in the projects goes and how deep your footprint on someone’s heart steps. It is definitely worthwhile making the best out of the experience, because if you think you are too small to make a difference, then you never slept in a closed room with a mosquito.
                                                                                                                                                                Regina Ruete.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Bety reports on the training for the leaders in Slovakia

My name is Bety, I come from Czech Republic and since March this year I have been volunteering for Concordia helping in the office to send volunteers on international projects overseas and as one of the reasons to come to Brighton was to coordinate an international residential project, which Concordia generously offered to me, I decided to go for a training for the leaders of youth projects organised in Bojnice in Slovakia. I got an invitation just a couple of days before the project started, but I decided to go for it without any hesitation, because I knew I have still lot of to learn and I wasn´t confident enough about leading a group of international volunteers. Another reason to take part emerged itself from the description of the project: 70% of all transport expanses will be refunded after the end of the training. Well, interesting, even these possibilities exist within the wide european net of youth projects and training opportunities and everybody can go for that. The only limit is age, but since I´m under 30 I can participace in any of projects funded by european organisation Youth in Action. But the real catching point in terms of inovation was the fact that there was going to be a bunch of 20 participants from differnet countries, and all were going to be trained by experienced trainers, which sounded amazing and all together with the location in Slovakia (my dearest brotherland) I basically couldn´t say no. I bought my flight tickets three days before the project started, that may sound rushed, which scared me a little bit, but all these feelings were absolutely pointless, because one week later I was leaving the project with the notice of complete, deep and cheerfull satisfaction with an expression „I can do it“ on my face.

Having fun during one of our many team building games. Can you spot me?
Situated in a beautiful village of Bojnice, which gave us many daily and night opportunities for free time activities, the training was full of enthusiastic and open minded participants and especially with great professional trainers from Estonia, Slovakia, Cyprus and Czech Republic it was one of my best holidays ever. Our main goal was to write an international guidebook for future leaders of youth projects, which was supposed to teach us by the very elaborated method learning by doing how to lead a group of young people. During different sessions such as intercultural learning, conflict resolution, evaluation methods or project managment the trainers teached us how to handle with different (problem) situations, which can occur at a group of young people, how we should behave and act to satisfy the needs of each participant and whether it is possible at all. What I really loved about the project was that besides so much handy information we got something more and it was our self development. This was very insightful and I think all the participants noticed that and it brought all the group together. All the programme was just very well organised, the trainers as flexible as they could be and they gave us the best example. All I can say for the end is that i would strongly recommend this kind of training not only to future leaders but also for those, who would like to learn or reveal some new facts about themselves as personalities.  So if you see such a project is going to take place, don’t hesitate and go for it, because it will rock and I’m sure you will love it!