ESC GREEN FINGERS – Autumn volunteering team 2023 testimonies (part 1)

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From September 16th to October 25th, ten volunteers from seven countries participated in the Green Fingers project, making up the autumn volunteering team of the European Solidarity Corps

Volunteers Sarah (Bulgaria), Cyrielle, Gaston and Marie (France), Jennifer (Germany), Zoi (Greece), Gaia (Italy), Anneke (Netherlands), Sofija and Evgenija (North Macedonia) carried out activities in primary schools in Zagreb and Vrbovec: gardening in the school gardens of partner primary schools, build a raised beds and composters, and cleaned running path for kids playground in the school yard from grass and maintaining greenery area in primary school Davorin Trstenjak and Petar Preradović, organized and held an Intercultural evening, organized and held personal projects as part of the Garden Festival at primary school Dobriša Cesarić, and had language and cultural workshops for students in the primary school Marija Jurić Zagorka (Vrbovec). The program provided different avenues for volunteers to embrace and try on various activities, from working on the personal project tasks to watching birds in Maksimir (organized and implemented by NGO BIOM) and participating in educational activities to explore nature’s wonders, celebrate trees, and learn about their importance through interactive activities (organized by NGO Ocean Znanja).

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 Ever since I’ve known myself, I’ve always felt deeply upset about all the bad and unjust in the world, and truly appreciated every single kind act. 

With the guidance of these feelings I’ve had, I decided I wanted to do volunteering to give back to society and to the earth.

After I graduated college, I started looking for volunteering opportunities, both in my home country and abroad. In the process, I remembered about the European Solidarity Corps, which I learned about thanks to a youth exchange I did previously. At that moment I realized this could be the perfect chance for me.

On the European Youth Portal, while looking through volunteering opportunities, I came across Green Fingers, and I was instantly captivated! I’ve always been someone who not only appreciates, but also tries to nurture, protect, and connect with mother nature. So, I applied and heard back from Jasmina soon. After we got in contact we scheduled an interview, where Jasmina interviewed me and helped me with all my questions and concerns regarding the project. She also put me in contact with a sending organization since I didn’t have one (shoutout to Natalie as well, she was the best person I could ask for in a supporting organization!). With all the arrangements finished, I was ready for my journey!

After my bus ride, I arrived at Zagreb, where Jasmina picked me up and took me to our hostel, the accommodation. When I went there, all the other volunteers were outside since they arrived a day earlier than me and started exploring the city already! Realizing they’d already made friends with each other, I couldn’t help but feel anxious: I was scared I couldn’t be friends with them, or that I’d miss my home, friends, and family. However, after I woke up from my nap, they were back at the hostel, and as soon as I met them, I realized I wouldn’t be too lonely. They were all very friendly and welcoming: they even did grocery shopping from the first day, and started cooking and eating meals together 🙂

Within less than a week, we started being friends as a group. Of course, not all of us got along with each other instantly, but over time, we discovered all the amazing sides of each other that made us unique, and we all became this crowded family!

In the meantime, the activities and work started as well. We were so surprised and happy when we saw the office for the first time: it was in the middle of Zagreb, with a beautiful terrace, and over a hundred plants! 

Soon we started working in school gardens. At first, we were focusing on the maintenance of the gardens, while also learning about the tools and plants. Additionally, since it was The European Day of Languages ​​shortly after we arrived, Mile thought it would be a nice idea to prepare a workshop for the students at the schools about our languages ​​and cultures. Just like that, we start preparing and executing workshops for the kids as well. In this first workshop we planned, we played games with the kids which were revolving around the kids guessing things about our cultures, and then proceeded with teaching them basic phrases and words in our languages. It was very encouraging and sweet to see them engage in the workshops and be interested in our cultures and languages. 

Throughout our project we went to four different primary schools, in which we did our gardening activities and workshops. In one of the schools, we planted new flowers and little trees, while in another we were building composter boxes or raised beds out of wood. In one we were working with the children, while in others we were alone, focusing on the job we were doing. I must say, those times even felt like meditation: I would give all my attention, focus and care to the plant I was working with, and would have the chance to let go of my thoughts. 

I learned a lot during the time I spent in Zagreb. I learned about gardening, about the types of plants, about how to care for them, how nature works and what it needs. While building in the gardens, I learned how to use a drill and a hammer. I learned how to have a good time with a group of kids, and what’s the best way to communicate with them in a healthy way. I learned about Croatian language and culture, about their food and habits, and about Zagreb.

Furthermore, I learned how to work better in a team. How to organize, take responsibility, participate in civil life, be more open minded, take initiative, be patient, and much, much more…

But there was one thing I learned, which I could not have learned anywhere else: I learned how a random group of young people, from different ages and countries, could become a family.

Thank you to my family away from home and to green fingers for teaching me so much, and helping me on my journey to discover who I truly am.

Can’t wait to see you again someday…

                                                 – Sarah, Bulgaria

 After finishing my studies in order to be a History and Geography teacher, I wanted to test myself by doing volunteering.

I wanted to live another experience than the one I had doing an Erasmus in Spain, still meeting people from all over Europe while having a true learning and giving experience. The ESC Green Fingers project seemed to have everything I was looking for, so I joined this soon to be a wonderful journey.

Professional advantages of the experience:

This volunteering allowed me to stick to a domain I was familiar with, working and being around children, and teaching. It gave me more training in my ability to improvise, to think differently regarding learning activities. It challenged my willingness to be original concerning workshops, being able to catch someone’s attention in a subject as complex and important as sustainability. Furthermore, it participated in building trust and self-confidence; speaking in public, doing presentations, and group activities are always useful abilities to train for any job someone can have.

Volunteering and gardening; a learning experience:

Gardening is, however, a domain I am not too familiar with. This volunteering gave me an opportunity to learn the basics, to use the right tools for the right situation, and even to share my fresh knowledge with children in many of Zagreb’s schools with gardening workshops.

Doing gardening was a learning experience throughout all those six weeks, and mastering it better and better was very rewarding. This, combined with the workshops we did with schools, allowed me to say that this project was a success for me, because I genuinely felt like I was making a difference in the global fight promoting sustainability.

Volunteering in Zagreb: an incredible personal journey:

If the professional and learning experience was not already enough, this volunteering is moreover an incredibly personal journey. From meeting ten others volunteers from all around Europe to the people in O.A.ZA.’s organization, the teachers, school’s staff, the kids… And the fact that the accommodation is in a hostel in the beautiful city of Zagreb guarantees unbelievable encounters and stories to tell and to live for.

                                                     – Gaston, France

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 When I decided to take a gap year, I had no idea what I would do.

I knew I wanted a break from my engineering studies and that I wished to explore the world a little more. I had done some volunteering in the past and I wanted to repeat that experience, as helping others around me always made me feel fulfilled and useful. When I heard about the ESC program, I thought that it would be the perfect match for me as it combined these two desires.

What is the ESC? To put it briefly, the ESC program connects volunteers from all around Europe (and sometimes even beyond Europe) to NGOs so that they can work together on a short-term (from two weeks to two months) or a long-term (up to twelve months) volunteering project. I applied to a few volunteering projects across Europe, but the one that caught my attention the most was one in Zagreb called “Green Fingers”. This project was about working outside, gardening and DIY-ing, but also organizing workshops for kids about sustainability and different cultures. It had everything that I was looking for and fitted completely to my values. What’s more, I was excited to discover a part of Europe I’ve never been to and that I knew had a very different culture from mine, as a French-Slovak woman. 

I was counting down the days to the project and when the day to leave my parents’ house arrived, I was both very excited and worried: how was it going to be with the different volunteers? would we get along well? will I manage to talk to the local since I didn’t speak a word of Croatian? would the project really please me? All this worrying completely disappeared the moment I arrived and I met the other volunteers: they were all very friendly and we began to do almost everything together from the very first day, be it cooking and eating, travelling, playing games or exploring the city. 

During the week, we would work every day from approximately 9AM to 3PM. These days were never the same! We would organize workshops, garden in four different schools but never doing the same kind of work, participate in workshops organized by different NGOs or play out the activities we had planned for the children. What I loved the most was, first and foremost, the day when we would do a lot of DIY. We built composters and raised beds and it was the best days of the project! We had a lot of fun digging the soil, cutting wood and learning how to work with a drill or how to use a shovel properly. We were always very tired at the end of these days, but we were all proud of ourselves. I also enjoyed working and talking with the kids, some of them spoke perfect English and it was always a delight seeing how much they liked having volunteers around. I learned a lot from them.

Just like every European-coordinated project, this one also aimed at making us discover different cultures and people from all around the world. And so we did! We met a lot of travelers as we were staying in a hostel, each with their unique story. It was wonderful sitting in the common area and hearing stories coming from thousands of kilometers away. One of the best memories I have is when we were playing the guitar and singing and a Chinese family arrived and asked us if they could sing some traditional Chinese songs. We obviously agreed and the songs were beautiful! We also had the opportunity to know more about the Aruban culture thanks to three Aruban girls who were volunteering in another NGO, we learned how to decipher the Australian accent, we met other French people all over the country, we learned how to say “Enjoy your meal” and “cheers” in multiple languages ​​and so much more…

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I’m really grateful for the opportunity I had to do this amazing project with these even more amazing people. When the time to say goodbye finally came, we all got very emotional because we really became a family throughout these six weeks. I will cherish the memories I made forever and I can’t wait to go visit all the friends I made in their home countries! I definitely encourage everyone to participate in this kind of project because it will change your life forever. Remember that the world is your oyster and you should take every opportunity you have to experience it.

                                                   – Marie, France

 After graduating high school I knew I wanted to do something different and not go straight to university. So there I was figuring out what to do in the next year. A friend of mine recommended the ESC program and then I started looking for projects. I found the Green Fingers Autumn Project 2023 by O.A.ZA. and applied for it. One of the reasons I chose this project was my interest in learning more about gardening and plants. But also my interest in the environment and about learning more about sustainability influenced my decision to join this project.

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Additionally, the fact that I didn’t have to worry about food arrangements made my choice of agreeing to this project even more appealing. The vegetarian/vegan challenge removed my concerns about food, as I knew that the other volunteers would have similar preferences or at least are open to it. 

So I was very happy when I got the opportunity to do this project. But because I never did any volunteering before or went abroad for a longer period of time I was nervous. Nevertheless I chose to do this project and I am very glad I did because for my first experience of volunteering it was a good one.

Our work involved two main aspects. The first aspect was the work in the school gardens where we weeded, cleaned tiles, planted plants and built composters and raisin beds. I really liked building the composters and raisin beds because it allowed me to work with wood, learn valuable skills and see a long term result. 

The other aspect were the workshops we did for the children in the school. We primarily did a language and culture workshop. I was very surprised and impressed by how well some of the children spoke English and also knew some German already. 

We participated in a bird-watching workshop, which, at first, I thought might be boring. However, it turned out to be far more interesting and enjoyable than I expected. This project allowed me to experience new things I probably wouldn’t have considered before.

This also includes the different teachings about the cultures of the others. Through the intercultural night I had the opportunity to get to know more about the culture of the volunteers through their presentations and their food. These presentations sparked my interest in their countries and built a strong desire to travel them.

During this time, I not only learned about the Croatian culture and the culture of my fellow volunteers, so that I could expand my knowledge about different cultures. But I also experienced personal growth through, for example, many amazing conversations with them. These talks offered me new perspectives on different topics, life itself and myself. 

At the beginning of the project I doubted whether I would do the personal project or not. The weeks went by and I did my personal project at the Garden festival and got out of my comfort zone by doing that. This whole project offered me different possibilities to get out of my comfort zone and try new things, which also had an influence on my personal growth.

The daily cooking in the hostel allowed me to see the joy the others had for cooking and they inspired me with it. I also got new ideas for cooking and improved my own cooking skills. So some of the small habits I picked up during the project have stayed with me even after it ended.

I met so many amazing humans that became like family to me in the shortest amount of time. It wasn’t always easy, but the happy moments outweighed all the difficult moments that we had and we managed to overcome every challenge together. 

I am very thankful that I was part of this project and for the people I met in this project.

                                                                                                                                        – Jennifer, Germany

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 It was August and I came across a post on Instagram about Green Fingers and I made a form after an interview with the supervisor of O.A.ZA. 

I got in and booked the tickets for Croatia, Zagreb. It all started on the 16th of September when I arrived by plane to become part of the European Solidarity Corps project “Green Fingers” a project that focuses on gardening and making the school gardens a better place for urban society and focusing on cultural appropriation. We were welcomed by our supervisor Jasmina and our trainer Mile on Monday which was the first day of our activities.

We got introduced to European and Erasmus+ programs, how they work, why they exist, etc. and how we will work from now on in the O.A.ZA. organization. Then on Tuesday we did our first gardening session we had to take out the weeds from a stone garden in a school called Dobriša Cesarić and we learned the proper use of gardening tools from shovel to smaller tools all one by one with the help of our trainer Mile. Then, we decided what we were going to do on our personal project.

Personal project it’s an activity that we have to cooperate and manage ourselves so with this we learn how to be the supervisor and coordinator. That’s how the first week passed and then the weekend came where we have our free days. After that the second week we went to a lots and different schools, we learned some Croatian words with our supervisor Jasmina and we did our language workshop with the kids. They are very clever so that went fast we meet so many different grades and kids even special education ones. After that we also cleaned around the school teaching us patience, focus and of course the importance of a school garden and to be connected with nature especially young kids who live in the city. On the second Friday we also had the Intercultural night, I made Greek salad and I learned different stuff about different cultures that I didn’t know from central European ones down to Balkan ones. It was a nice way to connect with people and learn their kind of living and how they do things. After that, the days continued with gardening at school, language workshop and some more hard work. We also went to a school that was far away and we had to make a trail for a sensory garden that helps with children’s growth and development. With this experience I learned about how important it is for a child to connect with nature. I learn how to cut trees and how to make a compost box for a school. I also learned more spiritual things like teamwork and better communication with people. After all of that we went back to our countries on the 26th of October, with beautiful memories and lots of things to share with our friends and family. It was an experience that I will never forget.

                                                           – Zoi, Greece

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Udruga O.A.ZA
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