ESC GREEN FINGERS – autumn volunteering team 2023 testimonies (part 2)

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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).

 My experience as a volunteer in the Green Fingers project in Zagreb started on a Friday, precisely on Friday the 15th of September.

I woke up at 4 am, took my backpack and my suitcase and went to the airport to catch the first flight of the day: from Turin, my city, to Munich and then from Munich to Zagreb. I have always loved travelling, and with time I got used to being comfortable doing it on my own. I love the excitement before starting a new adventure, wondering between the gates, fantasizing about the next chapter of my life. This time there was a difference, though; I was feeling as if I left everything behind to jump into the unknown. I started asking myself a thousand questions, and I found out I had no answers. What am I doing? Am I sure about moving to a new country for one month and a half on my own? What if I don’t get along with the other volunteers? What if the hostel is awful, or even what if absolutely everything sucks? Well, I thought, it’s too late to give up now anyways, isn’t it? I waited three hours in Munich for the flight that would have brought me, finally, to Zagreb. When I arrived, I had arranged to meet with two of the other volunteers, who were going to land approximately at the same time as me. That’s when me and Jennifer met for the first time, not knowing we would have become close like sisters in the next six weeks. We sat down at a bar, waiting for the other volunteer, and talked about everything and anything for almost an hour. My brain started calming down, it wasn’t as bad as I thought, it’s going actually pretty amazing! When me and the girls finally arrived at the hostel, I was amazed by it. The walls were all painted in all the colors, with drawings of the ocean and the sky. It honestly felt like I was dreaming, and I was so excited to call that place home even just for a while. We met the hostel owner, a guy who had some pretty unconventional manners, and we started getting to know each other with the other volunteers who had arrived in the meantime. What a first day! By the end of it I was feeling as if I had known these guys for years. From that moment on, we became more and more like a family. The day we first went to work we had absolutely no idea of what we were doing, but the feeling of being lost was a shared one; for this reason, even the most plain activity turned out to be fun and a chance to discover more about each other’s while also learning to do something new within the project. The daily work in the gardens and at the office, as well as the time off that we spent exploring the city and spending time together, started feeling like a routine.It felt good to have something steady in all of these big new changes. However, it didn’t last long. After our first week, a terrible accident happened and one of the volunteers had a stroke in front of us while we were going for a hike, which sent her to the hospital in really bad conditions. This experience brought a lot of instability in our lives, but looking back I could never have asked for better people to go through this with; we were each other’s support system even in the most difficult moments and we managed to get out of this and keep going with the project. It was great to do something for the community in Zagreb, and I think it really helped in giving us a purpose and finding the light to get out of this traumatic experience. We worked hard in the gardens, plucking the weeds, cutting branches, building compost boxes and raised beds.

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It was a completely new activity and something I would never have done in my everyday life in Turin. I got to experience this, even more in a team. I discovered I enjoy a lot building things with wood, using the drill came very naturally to me and I found it relaxing. I also really liked interacting with the kids and teaching them something new, while learning from them as well. Most of them were truly amazing, so smart and eager to learn. Seeing the kids’ interest and liveliness gave me a lot of hope about future generations and their response to our current global issues, such as the climate crisis.

During our time off, I got the chance to learn so much about the other volunteers’ cultures, in particular about their languages. Almost every day we would have lunch and dinner together and we would say “have a nice meal” in all of our languages before starting eating. It would be very hard to make a recap of all that I have done in these six weeks, I could talk about it for pages and pages. What I can say is that I gained so much from this experience, both in terms of personal growth and in terms of the people I met. My parents told me just a couple days ago that they see I have something new in me that I didn’t before and that they can clearly perceive it. I also feel different, I know for a fact that I discovered new sides of me through this project. Just a year ago I used to tell my friends I would never have spent time in a hostel while traveling and now here I am, after living for a month and a half in one with eight other people. I have noticed that when I challenge and push myself to do something I see as “impossible”, I discover that it actually is very much possible and I love the fact that I managed to do every single one of those things that I considered uncomfortable or hard. Once again, stepping out of my comfort zone gave me the opportunity to evolve and grow into a person who doesn’t let fear control her that much anymore. I will forever cherish the moments I had in Zagreb, especially the ones that I shared with my friends, who are now a family to me. I am so grateful for this experience, and I am looking forward to being involved in volunteering again in the future! To anyone deciding whether or not to go for an experience like this, do it; stepping out of your comfort zone despite being scared is the first step towards your higher self and towards the best memories you will ever make.

                                                             – Gaia, Italy

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 Weeding and teaching sounds like a good summary of what I have been doing over the past six weeks in the ESC Green Fingers project. But in reality it was much more than that.

Why did I decide to volunteer?

After high school I felt like I had to take a step back and get to know myself better. To find out what I like, what is important to me, to gain experience and to get out of the study spiral, so that I can actually realize what I am studying and working for. 

That is why I decided to take a gap year. Because I wanted to do as many things outside my comfort zone as possible, I wanted to watch my budget. I went to the gap year fair in Utrecht and was introduced to the subsidized ESC programs and became very enthusiastic. It is the perfect opportunity to develop yourself and be useful and productive at the same time. After searching a lot on the ESC website I found this project. It appealed to me because it was a group project with many nationalities and because I could learn about gardening and working with children. So I signed up.

What did I do in Zagreb?

During the project we had two tasks. Our first task was gardening in the gardens of four different primary schools. We have, among other things, cleaned walking paths, cleared beds and paths of weeds, built wooden composters and raising beds, pruned bushes and planted plants.

Our second task was to organize workshops for primary school children. We organized a language/culture workshop to introduce the children to different nationalities and cultures and we prepared a sustainable energy workshop to teach the children about climate change and different ways to generate more sustainable energy. The workshops were a challenge because they had to be understandable and entertaining for the Croatian children. We managed to make the workshops interactive, using games, posters and quizzes.

In addition to our work, we educated ourselves by watching documentaries about sustainability, taking a Croatian language lesson and visiting workshops from other volunteer organizations. We went bird watching, exploring nature and carnival dancing.

Zagreb is the capital of Croatia, which means there was always something to do in our time off. Sometimes it was just chilling in one of the many parks or strolling through the streets, but we also visited various events and tourist attractions. Because we had plenty of free time and there was a lot to do in a wider circle around Zagreb, we went on several trips. We went to Split, the Plitvice Lakes and Ljubljana.

What has the project brought me?

The project has brought me much more than I expected. I learned to garden, teach children and speak a foreign language, but I also learned to adapt to new situations, make contact with strangers, put unimportant matters into perspective, take others into account, work together and acknowledge the importance of surrounding yourself with nature .

The volunteering team on the Green Fingers project is a group project. This means that almost everything we did, we did as a group. We spent a lot of time talking about each other’s nationalities and lives. Everyone has their own passions and background and this inspired me to be more open-minded and try new things.

It’s wonderful that when you put so many people with completely different backgrounds into one project, you manage to form a real family in only six weeks time. I am very grateful for that.

                                                                                                                                   – Anneke, Netherlands

 As a person who participated in many Erasmus+ youth exchanges, training courses and seminars as well as volunteered in local and international NGOs and worked professionally in the CSOs sector – in February 2023 I decided to start as a freelancer – working on project as well as teaching online. I continued living in Ankara, Turkey, the city I made my home and I had more time to read, spend time in nature and parks, work on my personal development. 

This summer I felt like I needed to go out of my comfort zone, try something really new, but at the same time in a way close to me. That is how I decided to look for a short term volunteering opportunity in the NGO sector, but I wanted to be part of something, a topic that I never worked on and I do not have any expertise, knowledge or skills. That is how I found the Green Fingers project – a project that focuses on sustainability, gardening, working with children and schools and educating them about plants, planting, gardening, healthy lifestyle and so on. I thought that this is the perfect opportunity for me and that is how I applied for the project. 

On the day of my arrival in Zagreb – our supervisor Jasmina was waiting for me at the bus station even though I arrived on Sunday which is a non-working day, she showed me the office, accommodation and welcomed me in such a good way! And the office, of course, is a REAL oasis! Afterwards I met the other 9 participants and people with whom I shared the next 6 weeks.

During the project I learned a lot about gardening, birds since we had birdwatching activity at Maksimir park which was amazing, I was touching soil with my hands and planting plants, as well as I communicated with children from the primary school with whom O.A.ZA. has partnership . 

We organized workshops on various topics such as language and culture, sustainability etc and it was simply amazing how the kids were enthusiastic about learning something new about each of us, our countries and cultures as well as about sustainability and gardening. The teachers and school staff treated us very nice as well and all of us the volunteers felt like we were really doing something here! 

This is exactly why this quote is so relevant:  “Volunteers are not paid because they are worthless, but because they are priceless.

                                   – Sofia, North Macedonia

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 Here I am in disbelief this project finished, or at the same time was all of this reality? It must have been a blast to make me feel I was out of reality. Let’s see why. Shall we?

How was my experience during the “Green Fingers” volunteering project in Zagreb. We started as a diverse group of 10 individuals, varying in age and background, all united by a common goal: to volunteer, promote sustainability, gain knowledge in gardening, and engage with primary school children.

Upon my initial application, I had little expectation after a challenging time in Russia and it all started in a layover at the Istanbul airport. However, after a conversation with the project supervisor, Jasmina, my enthusiasm skyrocketed. I was immediately captivated by the collective energy of our group.

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We started to dine, plan, and work together seamlessly. We were a cohesive unit, akin to a dream team. Unfortunately, by the second week, we were down to nine due to a fellow volunteer’s hospitalization. This adversity brought us even closer, forging a bond akin to family.

Throughout the project, I never felt like my efforts were in vain. True volunteers don’t anticipate rewards, and personally, I thrive on productivity. Gardening taught me patience, the proficient use of tools, the art of discernment, and the importance of selecting the right plants for cultivation. Additionally, it underlined our symbiotic relationship with nature, reminding us that we are mere guests on this Earth.

Engaging with the children was undeniably the most gratifying aspect. We initiated a language workshop, which was highly successful. Their eagerness to learn about our cultures and languages was palpable. I am proud to say that my proficiency in Croatian significantly improved during my six-week tenure in Zagreb. Furthermore, we conducted workshops on renewable energy for the youngsters, an area of personal expertise. I was amazed by the knowledge these young minds possessed, and it was a privilege to share my expertise. The experience with the children taught me to make swift decisions, as each class exuded its own unique energy. I was equally impressed by the schools in Zagreb, with their dedicated gardens and passionate educators who welcomed us wholeheartedly. 

As for “O.A.ZA.,” our hosting organization, they exemplified warmth and readiness to facilitate our adjustment to a foreign land. Personally, adaptation wasn’t an issue, given my extensive experience in international projects since the age of twelve. However, it was evident that their motivation was not monetary gain, but rather a genuine passion and vision for their work. I find immense satisfaction in collaborating with individuals who derive genuine joy from their vocation.

For the end I will leave the bond in the group, laughter, tears, and heartfelt embraces are memories that will forever be etched in my heart. To anyone considering participation in the European Solidarity Corps program, I wholeheartedly endorse it. It is a transformative experience, expanding one’s horizons and bolstering self-assurance.

                                                             – Evgenija, North Macedonia

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Udruga O.A.ZA
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