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Personal growth is not just a cliche – check four volunteer stories

When you are reading information about volunteering projects abroad, or if you take a look into missions and values of organisations providing volunteering opportunities, you can’t avoid words like self-development, personal growth, learning and change. Volunteering has a positive impact on future, it can give a good boost to further education or working life, not to mention language learning and international contacts – and many more things.

I’m really sure that this all is true, since volunteering is unique, personal and memorable experience. But now it’s time to have a look what it means in practice – how are the volunteers impacted in real life?

In this post, four former ESC (European Solidarity Corps) volunteers are sharing their experiences on impacts of volunteering on their life after the project. Enjoy three written and one audio story!

Makbule: “Volunteering shaped me, my path and my life“

Makbule has spent a year in France an another one in Spain. After her own volunteering experience she’s now working in Grenzenlos, sending young people abroad to experience the same that she has experienced herself. Listen to Makbule’s story and how she shares the huge impact that volunteering has had on her life.

Interview with Makbule Temel

Eeva: “I realized how many things I can do and started to live more independent and unlimited life”

Eeva was doing her six-month volunteering project at Grenzenlos office in 2015, Maailmanvaihto as her sending organisation. She had just graduated in 2014 and tried to find a job in her home-country, Finland. It wasn’t easy, and an opportunity to get some work experience as well as live in another country was a perfect option in the middle of unemployment and very short employment relationships. So she decided to go to Austria for half a year – and it really was a right decision and had a huge impact on her life.

Eeva left Finland thinking of getting important work experience which also looks good in the CV and experiencing what it is to live in a foreign country. Both of these goals were achieved. Working in Grenzenlos – an intercultural association – gave a good boost to the world of organizational work and NGOs. “After my project in Grenzenlos, I have continued to work in different associations, and today I’m still working in an NGO here in Finland”, says Eeva. “And when it comes to living in another country, somehow I felt it important – at least I realize it now afterwards – to show to myself and others that I can manage to live in a new country. My family has always been quite internationally-oriented and each of my family members has spent longer time abroad, so I wanted to do the same”, she continues.

Group Picture of a City Ralley with international participants

However, the professional development or just the experience of living abroad were not the most important benefits of volunteering, altough they are big achievements. The greatest thing happened in a personal level and inside Eeva’s own mind. As a wheelchair user she had used to feel some doubts and prejudices from the society, and sometimes her own confidence was not so high either. “Before my time in Austria I tought I can’t do so many things, somehow I felt that I have more limits. I wasn’t always so confident to broaden my limits and challenge myself. For example I didn’t use the public transport in Finland independently so much before my project, I only dared to use very familiar lines”, she tells.

In the totally new environment she needed to find a way to get settled, to set up every-day routines, to go to the new places etc. “I just did what I needed and what I wanted, and I noticed that I could do many more things than I had done before. It was great to realize that “Hey I can do this and this too”. “And when you just do and then notice that you manage without problems and nothing bad happens, it gives confidence”, she describes. To give some concrete examples, she mentions public transport and exploring places alone: “I felt that I managed the public transport in Vienna independently without problems, and Vienna is much more bigger city than Helsinki – if I can feel good and safe when moving in Vienna, I will be able to do the same in Finland too. Another example, before my project I didn’t go so often to places alone, but in Vienna I started to visit museums, cafes and restaurants also alone, and actually I enjoyed it a lot.”

The time in the volunteering project started to change Eeva’s way of thinking and living. She did more and more things and stopped to think that something is difficult or not possible because of her disability. “My experience from Austria is that people really wanted to do everything possible for me. If there was a problem, instead of just politely regreting the situation, they really wanted to solve the issue. I felt this both in my work and free time, and then I started to think like that myself too”, she explains. This attitude of “more unlimited life” continued also after the project: “For example I started to use more public transport independently in Finland as well, I dared to use new bus lines for example. And in general, I started to be more open and believe that my limits are not so strong and they can be broadened”.

So to summarize, in addition to work experience, volunteering abroad can support finding, testing, challenging and broadening one’s personal limits – and that’s really a long-term impact and a huge benefit for the future.

Lisa: “I found an interest in disability rights and built a strong network in another country”

Lisa is an Austrian young woman who took part in European Solidarity Corps doing her project in Belgium in 2019. Grenzenlos was her sending organisation, and European Network on Independent Living – an NGO promoting disability rights – worked as her hosting organisation in Brussels. Lisa had many friends who had studied or worked abroad and she knew how they benefited from that experience. However, she didn’t know exactly how the same would be possible for her as a blind person – until she found this opportunity. She also wanted to get some important work experience that can help to find further jobs. “And maybe I also tought a little bit that I want to somehow break those stereotypes about blind people, I wanted to show that I can travel, work and do all the things. But the real main reason was that I wanted to experience living and working abroad”, she explains.

The work on disability rights offered a huge amount of learning and gave a good professional boost. “As a blind I of course know a lot about issues related to blindness, but I found it super interesting to get to know also issues and challenges of people with other disabilities. I didn’t know so much about the disability rights movement in Europe, either. This opened a new world for me and now I know so much more”, Lisa says. Due to her volunteering project she also found this topic to become her personal interest: “Now I’m really interested in disability rights and I follow discussions, events and initiatives on this topic. Maybe I can also get involved in the future or find a job in this field.”

Lisa in Brussels
Lisa in Brussels

The professional learning in work also gave confidence at a personal level. Lisa describes that she realized more clearly that disability rights are basic human rights, they are not just “nice to have things”. And that helped her to be more confident as a disabled person – and sometimes also to be a bit more demanding regarding her own rights.

Confidence grew also outside the project. “I didn’t know so much about Belgium before I went there. I had studied French at university so I knew that I could improve my spoken French and maybe learn some Dutch as well. But I didn’t have any personal experience about Belgium, I didn’t know routes and places or anything. But now at the end I can say I have almost like a second home, I have a very strong connection to Belgium and I have built a wide network there”, she tells. And how this strong connection came true? Lisa tells that sometimes she can be a bit shy, and meeting people outside the work was a bit difficult in the beginning. But then she started to get to know locals, made some friends and met many people – also her boyfriend! “Yep, I have the boyfriend in Belgium, so I really feel connected there also socially”, she confirms.

In addition to social network, she of course learned a lot about places too, and got confidence for orientating. In the beginning she got some mobility training to support her to learn the daily routes. Even if the mobility training is crucial and extremely useful for people with visual impairments, sometimes it’s still necessary to find some place alone, or sometimes it’s not possible to avoid getting lost. “In Brussels I really started to go to places even if I didn’t know the way exactly. If I didn’t know some part of the route, I just used my GPS or asked for help, and I always managed. Few times I got lost, but finally I always found back”, she tells and shares one example: “I needed to take a bus from work to home, and there were several bus numbers driving from the same bus stop. Sometimes I was thinking that what if I accidentally take the wrong bus, and then one day it actually happened. Even if I tried to ask the number, I ended up driving with the bus I never used before. Then I got off in the next stop and tried to find a stop for another direction to drive back, but due to some construction work it was not so easy. I asked many people and finally I found back, and actually I had a super interesting conversation with one person in the way. I think it was a good thing for me that this happened, as I noticed that even if something that I’m a bit afraid of happens, still I’m able to solve the situation.”

The strong connection to Belgium and improved confidence have an impact on Lisa’s life all the time, also now after the project. She’s going back to Belgium very often, and that’s something that she couldn’t even expect. “It’s better than I could imagine. I mean, I didn’t expect this strong connection. I’m extremely happy about this”, she says happily. “And now I know that I can build my life and network in a new environment if needed. I have made it once, so I can do it again”, she adds. Lisa’s plans for the future are also related to her volunteering experience and will take place in Brussels. She is going to start a five-month internship in the Council of EU in the beginning of next year. “Without my experience of living and working in another country and without the confidence that I got from that experience, I think I wouldn’t have dared to apply this kind of internship abroad”.

Felix: ”I developed a new mindset”

After school Felix needed to think of military or civil service which is obligatory in his home-country Austria. He knew that the military was not the right option for him, so he started to search something else – and found Grenzenlos and the option to do European Voluntary Service (EVS, the previous programme before ESC) as a replacement of civil service. He went to a small village called Beauvoisin in southern France for one year. His hosting organisation was REV (Réseau d’Entraide Volontaire), which is a suborganisation under Solidarités Jeunesses.

Felix in Beauvoisin
Felix at the project in Beauvoisin

“It is a community centre in the village and we had diverse tasks together with other volunteers. For example we offered English classes, organised cultural events and visited a nursing house. Another task was environmental work, we planted almost 3000 trees in a natural park and cleaned and maintained hiking and biking paths for instance. We also lived together with all the volunteers, we cooked, did shopping, cleaned and even did some garden work together and shared the tasks. So it was really a community project in many ways. And probably one of the coolest things was a workcamp that I took part as a camp leader. The camp was about sustainability and environment, and I learned so much about responsibility, project management, self-awereness and of course about the theme of the camp”, Felix describes.

So to be honest, Felix left Austria “just to do the required service”, basically without higher motivation or great expectations. “I tought that I’m not super interested in this kind of work, it was just an alternative programme for me, something that I had to do.” But throughout the year it turned out to be totally something else, something bigger and something with more impacts: “It sounds a bit cliche and I don’t like to use these words, but it’s true that it was the year of my life. I had just graduated from school, I had a possibility to travel and see another country and Europe, I got to know some amazing people and actually I really loved my work and project. So it was not just doing what I had to, but it was an experience that impacted on my life so much more than I expected.”

Felix feels that the year in France changed him drastically as a person. To describe this change, he tells that he developed a totally new and different mindset and way of thinking and living. “I’m more open-minded person now. I developed ’a volunteer mindset’, and especially being open-minded is the thing that in my opinion is common for volunteers. As a volunteer you want to meet new people, you want to see new places and you want to gain new experiences. Basically, as a volunteer I started to be more open for everything.”

As we know, the basic idea of volunteering is to support local organisations and communities, and at the same time a volunteer can gain work experience, learn things and develop oneself professionally and personally. Felix improved his language and communication skills and also learned a new attitude towards work. “Volunteers don’t get paid of their work, and that opens a new and valuable perspective. I appreciated my work really differently, when I did it voluntarily. In volunteering you need passion and motivation as well as willingness to help others, and these factors make you appreciate your work”, Felix says. His new mindset has also an impact on his self-confidence and the ability to take risks: “I’m more ready to try new things and not so afraid to do something new and unfamiliar. For example during my volunteering year I started to hitchhike which was something that I didn’t have dared to do before. I’m now more self-confident person with more open attitude.”

Felix with a fellow volunteer
Felix with a fellow volunteer

European volunteering projects include also trainings an events, such as on-arrival training and mid-term meeting, which gather all the volunteers in the country together in one place. The big aims of these trainings are support, evaluation and self-assessment and the programme is about personal development and settling in a new country. Felix had his trainings in the city of Narbonne and for him it’s easy to say what was the greatest benefit of these meetings: “The main part was to meet all the other volunteers. I made a network and got connections for traveling together.” Felix points out that the role of traveling and meeting new people is extremely huge. “During your project you are able to travel a lot, and probably the most valuable thing for my future are all the people that I could meet, as it’s so helpful to have an international network when traveling”, he explains.

Felix has continued being active in the field of volunteering also after his time in France. As a local volunteer he has participated and contributed to many activities of Grenzenlos. He has been a coala – a buddy person for current volunteers in Austria. He has also organised activities, such as hiking, for current and former volunteers. In addition, he is active in a student organisation PRIME MOVERS which is something that he probably wouldn’t have done without the engagement and motivation that he got from his volunteering. “Thanks to my volunteering experience, I have met so many great people and I’m still connected with other volunteers a lot. And always when I just get a chance, I want to share my experience and the message that volunteering can really change your life and give you a direction to go.”