“Have you heard of the European Voluntary Service?” asked Ita, my aunt, during the second last week of August. I hadn’t. Just after my Leaving Cert, I could not make up my mind what to do. Theoretical physics? Engineering? In France? In Ireland? As well as having to choose which course to study, it was also a choice of which country to live in, my mother being French and my father Irish. Both decisions seemed impossible to make and had been haunting me for months.
The next few days were a rollercoaster: searching for European Voluntary Service (EVS to the inner circle) projects on the internet, contacting host organisations with help from my German teacher (I was applying for projects in Germany), trying to find a sending organisation in Dublin. I was discovering a whole new world. Everything seemed to be going my way. Within ten days the project had been found, the hosting organisation had agreed, and Tom in Voluntary Services International (VSI) on Mountjoy Square had helped me with all the paper work, along with a lot of patience and understanding. I had found VSI on the internet. Now the acceptance of my application lay in the hands of the European Commission, a decision which usually takes three months.
Those three months are usually used to prepare for the EVS experience; workshops, seminars, trainings. But my mum was finding it difficult to accept that I wasn’t going to study straight away after my Leaving Cert, so I was ‘strongly encouraged’ to start engineering college in France, in case I wasn’t accepted on the EVS programme. For this reason I didn’t take part in much preparation for the EVS, me being in France and VSI in Ireland.
In the first week of January, I was on a plane to Kassel, a small city in central Germany. I had initially applied to be a helper in a boxing camp for disadvantaged youths, but that position had already been filled, so I was offered a place as an assistant in a school for mentally impaired children, which I accepted without ever having had any experience of disabled people. The next eight months were a lifetime of discovery, culture and fun. I was living in a shared apartment with 7 other EVS volunteers who came from all over Europe. My volunteering days were Monday to Friday. I helped Massimo – a 14 year old autistic teenager who didn’t speak – in his daily tasks.
At home, I enjoyed learning to cook for myself (apart from the food poisoning I was responsible for on one occasion!). I took part in the on-arrival-training and pre-departure seminars, with 15-20 other EVS volunteers who had begun their EVS programme in Germany around the same time as me. Each seminar was two weeks long, packed with interesting nationalities, new habits, ideas, games and laughter.
What surprised me most during my experience was that I had never heard of EVS before August. Why did everyone not do an EVS? It’s a win-win situation: eye-opening, useful and fun experience for the volunteer, a useful source of enthusiastic work force for the host country and host organisation. Why are EVS programmes not encouraged by all Departments of Education in Europe? After all, education isn’t just in books, education is life itself. Why not spend a year helping others after 12-15 odd years studying in school? As well as helping others, the EVS is a great way to help oneself; learn a language, meet people from all over Europe (free and fun accommodation for years to come!), a breath of fresh air away from home, take time to reflect on what one wants to do when returning home (or not as is the case with my Spanish flatmate, who stayed on working with her host organisation), all of this fully funded by the European Commission!
My year in Germany helped me with the ‘life decisions’ I had to make after my EVS experience. I have come to realise these things take care of themselves, if one is able to listen to and trust oneself. So a double degree between Ireland and France it was (solving my dilemma of which country to choose!), and Engineering it turned out to be! The challenge for me was trying to stay in contact with all the friends I had made in Germany, now scattered all over Europe. The internet certainly helps, but in the end those people that we have affinities with stay in touch, and the others gradually enter the realm of memories.
Since my EVS experience, I have recently completed 5 years of a double degree programme in Mechanical Engineering between Trinity College Dublin and INSA Lyon in France. During those five years, I was very much involved in volunteering societies in college, including St Vincent de Paul in Trinity. Thanks to my experience in Germany with mentally impaired children, I subsequently became the leader of a group of 20 or so mentally impaired adults, and organised weekly activities with them and student volunteers. Before the volunteering, I used to shy away from contact with disabled people, now I realise that we are all disabled in our own ways, and that disability doesn’t really exist, it’s just that we’re all different. I am now taking time off after having finished my studies, and am considering setting up a cereal, fruit and vegetable educational farm.
If there is one piece of advice I can give to someone thinking of volunteering overseas, it is to do what you love and enjoy it!
*Picture sent in by Etienne, not part of Kate’s work*