Green Fingers: Autumn in School Gardens 2021 – Testimonials (part 1)

1. András, Hungary 

Introduce yourself! Why did you decide to go abroad and volunteer? 

Hi! I am András, a freshly graduated Geoinformatics researcher. In the past, I had many volunteering experiences. Recently, I spend 2 months volunteering with an ESC project in Zagreb. I found this project via my friend. She helped me to contact the NGO O.A.Z.A. They have been introduced me to the project, and I directly feel that I want to go. 

What did you do during your stay in Croatia? What were your tasks? 

Together with the other Volunteers, we head several tasks. Mostly we made workshops with the volunteering team. Those workshops mainly focus on environmental topics, healthy lifestyle, sustainability. Next, too, we also created some culture and language-based activities. Those workshops have been presented at primary and high school’s events for the students. We also created whole day events with specific topics like International Bee day, Garden Festivals etc. 

The other main task has been to build and maintain school gardens. These tasks have been included planting, weeding, preparing the soil, cutting the branches and many other gardens related tasks.

What did you do in your free time? 

In our free time, we went exploring areas around the city and enjoyed spending time together in the hostel. On our free days, we got to travel to different parts of Croatia. We visited many beautiful places in Croatia, and in the end, we head a spectacular trip from Dubrovnik to Zagreb. Some of us also joined the local climbing gym, which has been a lot of fun.

Has the coronavirus pandemic affected your project? 

Luckily, we still got to do most of our tasks. We got to run our workshops with the children outside. Sometimes faced complications because of the weather and spaces in the school but in the and all turn out great. Our office work has been really minimally affected by the pandemic restrictions. What has volunteering given you? Volunteering has helped me improve my team working, problem-solving and self-reflecting skills. Working with children’s and improving my pedagogical skills. It has also given me the opportunity to meet many people from different countries and experience a new culture. 

What are your plans after the project? 

I plan to go back to University and maybe one day come to be a teacher. 

Would you recommend the experience of international volunteering to someone? 

Yes, definitely, it’s a beautiful life-changing experience.

2. Lilli, Germany

Volunteering at OAZA / trying to make the world a better place/ how to meet wonderful people from all over Europe

One day in the far future, I will sit in an old wingchair at my fireplace and tell my grandchildren about the adventurous time I had back in spring of 2021, volunteering with the European Solidarity Corps at the non-governmental organization OAZA in Zagreb, Croatia.

The European Solidarity Corps gives young people the opportunity to acquire new skills, stay abroad and work in projects related to environmental issues, inclusion, culture, health and more – by volunteering. 

To be honest, this ESC volunteering opportunity was not what I thought I would be doing in my gap year in the first place. But things change and so I found myself applying for the Green Fingers Project at OAZA in Zagreb. Luckily!  

The OAZA team made us feel welcome in Zagreb so easily and during the first two introduction weeks, we learned a lot about the organization, their programmes and values. After that, the real work began. We created workshops for school classes, mostly younger children, to raise awareness about sustainability, environmental preservation, a healthy lifestyle, the parts of the flowers, bees, volunteering and much more. In the last week, we also realized two amazing garden festivals in schools. 

Another part of the work was gardening in school gardens in Zagreb as well as in the rural villages of Stubicke Toplice and Petrinja. Mile and Jasmina, our supervisors, taught us how to use the garden tools and then we started to plant flowers, cut bushes, clean the garden pond, fell trees and maintain raised beds.

Besides the work in the schools, we also got to spend some time with Filip, the director, who guided us through a short version of his “Life call” workshop and Goran who hold a “non-violent communication” workshop. Thereby we got a further interesting insight into the work of OAZA. During an intercultural night at the office, we learned more about each other cultures through presentations and each cooked a meal from our home country.

In our free time, we benefitted from the relatively relaxed corona measures in Croatia. Apart from strolling around in the versatile city, we were visiting museums, going to bars, exploring nice shops, relaxing at the big lake Jarun and having a lot of fun at the hostel. On the weekends we discovered cities nearby like Varazdin and Samobor and rented a van and went to Plitvicka lakes national park and Senj on the coast. 

There are a dozen things to do in Zagreb and around, but frankly, everything we did was memorable as long as we were together (cheesy, but true). 

When you are living and working with 11 other people, it is predestined to be an intense time. However, I could not have imagined how meaningful, deep, rewarding and inspiring this exchange was going to be. A conversation, game, workout, drink, history lesson or crazy dance party was always only one room apart. Two months seem like a short time but it is enough time to collect so many phenomenal memories your phone can not capture in pictures, to learn life lessons, to grow personally and to make friends from countries whose names you heard twice before in your life. 

And that is the most valuable aspect of an ESC in my opinion. 

Of course, it is nice to know of Europe’s common history, culture and values in theory.  But by joining such a multicultural project we get more tolerant, break down the limiting boundaries in our heads, allowing us to grow as a European society. Because Europe is not only about historical frontlines, but most importantly it is about the people that live here.

I want to say a very big thank you to the team of OAZA and the other volunteers for this marvellous time that is difficult to express in words.

3. Camille, France

Green Fingers, from the ONG OAZA, was my first ESC experience. I did not know about the European Union volunteering programs before running into their website while looking for a volunteering experience for my gap year. That is when I found the program Green Fingers. I really wanted to do something related to environmental protection and sustainable development. I was open to different suggestions, but OAZA’s proposal to work along with children on these subjects while promoting a sustainable lifestyle really drew my attention. Indeed, Green Fingers gave us the opportunity to teach children of Croatian schools about these subjects through workshops, but also to do some gardening in the schools. We were also encouraged to follow a vegetarian/vegan diet during the two months which I think was a good idea, especially with the amazing food OAZA’s Joyful kitchen offered us.

In the end, the program completely met my expectations. I am most thankful for having the opportunity to meet the volunteers from all over Europe, life and share this experience with them. We had an amazing time in Zagreb and across Croatia. Living all together in the same hostel brought us closer and we had a lot of free time to spend together visiting, playing sports, hanging out… Even if we had some challenges during these two months, this project allowed us to learn how to work and live with people from different countries and backgrounds. This was such an enriching experience for me, I would totally recommend it!

4. Marc, France

I decided to do this volunteering for 2 main reasons: I wanted to live a European/Erasmus experience and I wanted to do something linked with environmental protection and relevant to the local community. The Green Fingers project of the NGO O.A.ZA. was the perfect match for me. It combines living among a nine-different-country community (12 people between 19 and 30 years old from Germany, Hungary, Sweden, North Macedonia, Greece, Poland, Spain, the Netherlands and France) in a hostel and helping the local community by making environmentally-oriented workshops and gardening with pupils of Zagreb and the surroundings. At the beginning of the project, we met the other volunteers and the Oaza team. It was amazingly awesome, everybody was so welcoming and happy to be here. I definitely will keep a special memory of that arrival. During two weeks we made ice-breaking games, presentations of the NGO and its activities and work preparation. What is a workshop? It lasts between 30 minutes and 1 hour, it is supposed to be educative, non-formal, active and fun. For example, once we brought some paper, used plastic bottles, soil and seeds and we made them make their own pot to properly grow a flower only using already used material. Also during this one, we made them imagine and draw the flower they wanted to see coming out and at the end, we taught them what a flower needs to grow. After having learned how to make a workshop for children, we finally get into the real job: going to school! We did a lot of workshops (we did too many so that I lost count) and sometimes some gardening or DIY in the school. We planted some flowers in the school, prepared vegetable gardens, painted the garden, made outdoor furniture out of pallets and so on. It went so well, the kids were amazing and the volunteering team as well. Of course, sometimes we had some organisation issues but everyone was great and we overcame everything together. It is crazy how strong we are as a group. We also organised what is called “Garden festivals”. It is an intense day of playing and sharing with the kids throughout workshops or DIY, it is organised in a school. We organised two of them, the first with a lot of workshops and a very tight schedule. It was kind of stressful but very fulfilling in the end. The second one was more relaxing and chill. We had the whole day to help with planting trees, painting fences and other DIY with the pupils and their parents, we also played football or volleyball. It was awesome, one of my best memories in Croatia! Finally, the closure of the project arrived but we end with a high note: with 7 volunteers of the car, we did a one-week road trip from Zagreb to Dubrovnik passing by Split, the island of Murter, Omiš, Makarska, the island of Mljet. Croatia is wonderful and the trip team as well. It definitely was my best experience abroad, I met amazing people, we had a lot of fun and we worked well. I really felt we had a great impact on young people about nature protection and environmental issues with our positive way of mind and activities but at the same time, I found it very hard to debate and teach about such serious topics to young people (who were besides foreigners for me). This is why it’s so important for the project Green Fingers to go on and for you to volunteer.

5. Emilia, Germany

It was 01:30 in the morning when I arrived in „Mali Mrak“, the hostel where we’ve been living all together the past two months. It took me almost 17 hours from Berlin to Zagreb by train. All the stress fell off as I was warmly welcomed by everyone in the backyard of the hostel. It was the 10th of April when our adventure began. Our project by the organization O.A.Z.A. was called „Green Fingers 2021“. We had a wonderful, exciting, active and important time that we will never forget.

Over the two months, we had a great impact on the children we worked with and each other. Although sometimes it was exhausting and turbulent, we all loved our time there. Now I’m back in Berlin and I miss the colourful hostel life, my group, the work with the O.A.ZA.-Team and all the evenings of playing cards, talking and dancing all together.

O.A.ZA is a great NGO settled in Zagreb. The Team has a beautiful office right in the city centre, where everything is organized: the financing, the cooperation with schools, workshops and volunteer work. 

For many years they welcome groups of twelve volunteers from all over Europe, who come together twice a year for two months. O.A.ZA aims towards inspiring sustainable solutions, raising awareness for a healthy lifestyle and our environment in the schools in and around Zagreb. The organization has great and long-lasting connections to many schools in Zagreb and even to some schools in villages around Zagreb. The group of volunteers and the caring supervisors of the O.A.Z.A.-Team implement the concept – active education through workshops for first to tenth graders.

After one week of welcoming and introduction for the volunteers, the group starts to create the workshops and the days are filled with lots of activities. We’ve been visiting a lot of schools, sometimes having only two classes and a few workshops a day, some days up to six classes and a whole day program. The project ends with joyful garden festivals in some of the schools where we celebrate successful cooperation. 

More than the workshops, gardening plays a role in the project as well. We have fixed a garden pavilion roof, planted different flowers and vegetables and built and painted raised beds. Additionally, the volunteers get some workshops themselves about key competencies, preparing workshops and a lot more.

Like many other projects around Europa is this project financed by The European Solidarity Corps. So, our accommodation, food and the travelling costs got covered for all of us. We even got some pocket money and based on this, you can live pretty good. The project also included a travelling week in the end, which we all used to explore Croatia a bit more.

Even on the weekends, we got to see quite much. We were hiking, went to some museums in Zagreb and even rented a big van for one weekend to go to the coast. The working week is quite crowded but a perfect challenge to learn how to manage a full schedule. We learned how to be flexible, to have a plan B and C and how to work all together in a big team.

Some evenings we were sitting together with people from over ten different countries. The hostel life never got boring although you had to wait for your shower quite long sometimes, we all got close to each other and „Mali Mrak“ became a really hopeful place. My favourite place in the hostel was probably the outside kitchen, where we cooked together and gathered for some wine at night. 

All in all, we had a fantastic time and experiences we do not want to forget. I had the best roomies I could imagine and now I even miss the small annoying things. A big Thank you to the O.A.Z.A.-Team and all the effort they made to make us feel so welcomed and comfortable. I’m really grateful for this experience and all the wonderful people I was glad to meet.

6. Anandi, Netherlands

In this year of many uncertainties and even more cancellations, I had the beautiful opportunity to go to Zagreb to volunteer for the Croatian NGO O.A.Z.A. through the European Solidarity Corps. Not thinking I would be able to go anywhere to volunteer I had almost given up on that dream for my gap year until someone told me about ESC and encouraged me to just scroll through their opportunities. On the first day I did I came upon this project and it seemed so perfect I applied right away, just in time for the deadline, and a couple of days later I already interviewed and heard I got to go, it was just meant to be. Two weeks later I set foot in Zagreb, still in awe that I was actually able to travel and volunteer and incredibly excited to spend time with other people again (and even keener that it would be such a diverse group, in the end, we were with 12 volunteers from 9 different European countries). 

Before coming we were informed, and a bit warned, that it would be possible that most of the work would be online and making online tutorials. But upon arriving we had the luck to hear that we would actually be going to the school to work with the children in person, outside of course. The project I volunteered for was called “Green Fingers” and it aimed to help young children reconnect with nature in urban areas through setting up and maintaining school gardens and helping children learn more about sustainability, the importance of environmental protection and healthy lifestyles through non-formal and fun ways of learning. Apart from these specific aims it also gave us the opportunity to introduce these children to people from different European countries and show them about our cultures and languages. 

In the end, we spend many hours with many different children giving our workshops in many different schools, it was intense but very rewarding. Seeing the interaction from the children, them learning and understanding what we were trying to explain and being able to see those few children we really had an impact on was amazing. We not only worked with schools in Zagreb, but we also had the great opportunity to travel to Petrinja and Stubičke Toplice to work with schools there. The immense joy and gratefulness we experienced at these schools from the teachers and students were heart-warming. One of the greatest days I remember was one of the days we spend gardening in Petrinja, that day we fixed and completely refilled the garden beds in their school garden and cut down a massive, sadly dead, tree. It was intense physical work, but seeing the finished work was what we were doing it for. 

But not only did we work in Zagreb, together with the other 11 volunteers I had a blast living together in the cute little hostel, hanging out every evening and going away on the weekends. Soon we had found a rhythm of cooking together, doing workouts together and having just fun after finishing the work of the day (visiting museums, the parks, cute little cafes, all those places). Zagreb is a beautiful city with some even more beautiful nature surrounding it, many Sundays were spent hiking in the mountain next to the city or in some of the surrounding villages that can be reached by bus.  And of course, a trip to the Plitvice lakes and the coast had to be a part of it.

The people are what truly made this an amazing experience. Being able to work with such a diverse and fun group of other volunteers. Constantly entertaining, engaging and challenging each other. Working with the amazing members of OAZA who are so passionate about their work and the goals they have. And being able to work with the best children, their interaction and attention to all our workshops and hopefully having taught them a thing or two. 

So even though I had originally not envisaged going to Croatia at the start of my year, I am so immensely happy I did and I would recommend anyone to go out into the world and volunteer.