From September until November 2020 in the extraordinary conditions of worldwide pandemic, 12 volunteers from all over Europe participated in our Green Fingers project. Below we can all see their testimonies from their experience:
5. Julien and Baptistine, France
OUR FIRST VOLUNTEERING IN CROATIA
- PRESENTATION OF THE NGO
Our very first volunteering experience happened in Zagreb, Croatia. We spent 2 months doing a “short-term” volunteering, which was part of the European Solidarity Corps (ESC). This initiative comes from the European Union, which supports and funds volunteerings among European countries. Our hosting organisation was the Croatian non-governmental organization O.A.ZA. (Održiva Alternativa ZAjednici), which means Sustainable Alternative to Community. Oaza means “Oasis” in Croatian.
The members of this NGO aim at empowering the youths in order to build a more sustainable society for the future. To this end, they rely on 4 fundamental values: Togetherness, Balance, Spirituality, and Responsibility. Their actions follow the 3 pillars of sustainable development:
Social aspect: the program Joyful Leadership consists of a written manual and online lessons. The purpose is to provide tools to young people, so they could become alternative leaders and make a lasting positive change in the society. O.A.ZA. also hosts Seeking the essence events, which are philosophical debates about the meaning of our lives.
Economical aspect: Bridge to success events are regularly planned. During a week-long traineeship, workshops enables young people to develop entrepreneurship competences, discover their talent and convert it into an idea of business.
Environmental aspect: the program OASIS for kids aims at reconnecting children to Nature. The Green Fingers project, in which we volunteered during two months, is part of the program.
- WE HAVE REALIZED SOME GARDENING AND WORKSHOPS IN THE SCHOOLS
When we arrived In Croatia, we were not sure to work in the schools’s gardens and even less with the children because of the safety measures due to the coronavirus. During the first two weeks, we have mainly followed courses and presentations realized by OAZA’s employees, you can read about it in this article (see section 4). Thankfully, our supervisor Mile Draca, found out how to convince the schools to let us come and do some gardening. We also have had the chance to do a few workshops and games with the kids. In the end, we discovered six different schools, one based in Čućerje in the hills at the north-east of the Capital; two based in Zagreb, and three based in Petrinja, near the Bosnia-Herzegovina’s border.
We have experienced a one-week isolation because we were contact cases COVID-19. During this week, we have created approximately fifteen online video workshops and written a manual for teachers about how to use the videos. You can find the videos on Youtube on the channel Green Fingers OAZA. It was interesting to see how different the volunteers behave when we have to work, especially online, depending on our age, culture, studies, our interest in the project, etc. Finally, we are proud of what we have done because it was quite unusual to work in such conditions, online from home, while we were supposed to be in gardens with kids.
- WE FOLLOWED A VEGETARIAN CHALLENGE
During this volunteering we had the chance to follow an unusual challenge: be vegetarians during two months. We had lunch every working day in a vegan restaurant, the Joyful Kitchen. We discovered a lot of ways to get all the nutrients and proteins we need without eating meat. We mainly ate seitan, quinoa, tofu, tempeh, hemp, millet, lentils, vegetables and salad. We got used to it quickly, and never felt being in lack of anything in terms of nutrition. When we were at the hostel, we had no restriction about what we were eating, so we were free to buy eggs, yogurts, etc. and we sticked to the vegetarian challenge. Unfortunately, when you travel it is quite hard to find vegetarian food except salads and potatoes in local restaurants. It’s even more complicated during the coronavirus times, when sometimes most of the restaurants are closed. For this reason, we have deviated from the challenge when we were in Rijeka to try seafood specialties and in Ljubljana because we had no other choice.
Now, after this experience of vegetarianism, are sincerely thinking about becoming flexitarians, which means reducing our consumption of meat as much as possible. We will also try to eat non-violent animal products, and elaborate mainly vegetarian meals. Is it the first step to become vegan? Then we may totally give up the red meat, then all kinds of meat, then fish, then animal products? We will see, there is no hurry.
- WE HAVE HAD LESSONS
During the volunteering we got involved in the Green Fingers project. We had the chance to take part in O.A.ZA.’s activities about the social economical aspect. We were lucky to experience self-development workshops to work on our ˝Life call˝ with Filip, the founder of O.A.ZA. At the office we had lessons about project management and conferences about non-violent communication. Moreover, we study the Joyful Leadership online courses while volunteering and traveling in Croatia. It consists in self-development and management topics.
We also had the chance to deepen our commitment for the environment by helping the BIOM NGO, that aims at protecting biodiversity. Therefore, we participated during two days at a camp in Učka Natural area, where they do bird ringing and natural habitat restauration.
- WE HAVE LEARNT A LOT BY LIVING IN A MULTICULTURAL COMMUNITY
Another huge challenge we faced was about evolving as a group during the whole volunteering. Our team was composed of 12 volunteers from 7 countries all across Europe. We lived altogether in a hostel, shopping, preparing dinner together the 1st month. Even going on week-end required pretty good organization skills.
We shared every simple moment during two months, working at the office, gardening, during our free time as well. Hence, we developed our empathy and became more aware about the others’ needs. This quality is essential for the well-being of the group. For example, it is important to recognize when someone needs more private space.
Another thing we learnt there is awareness and understanding of differences. This can be called the intercultural acceptance. Coming from all different countries, with diverse backgrounds, values, education, it can sometimes be hard to understand why another volunteer is acting in a certain way. By increasing our tolerance, we learnt how to understand an opposite behaviour from what we are used to.
To sum up, group organisation, empathy and tolerance were the social competence we developed during this volunteering in O.A.ZA. Such cultural differences were also an incredible source of wealth. We were able to share so much about music, customs and food!
The ability to work and communicate as a group will be for sure really useful and significant for our future. This experience allowed us to develop so many soft skills through a non-formal education. The perspective was quite different from what we studied in our engineering school. Therefore, volunteering was a hugely rewarding experience in terms of personal and social competences, as well as knowledges we aquiered about Nature and its powers.
6. Domitille, France
I am Domitille from Rennes in the west of France and I was lucky enough to be part of a very nice volunteering project in Zagreb’s schools (and around).
I was happy to know that I was going to travel to Zagreb with Heloïse, who is from my city in France and was also part of the project!
This volunteering project which is called Oasis for kids – green fingers is a part of OAZA NGO. The aims are to maintain urban school’s gardens, facilitate intercultural exchange, and to increase tolerance and community spirit.
We were 12 volunteers from all around Europe (Poland, France, Ireland, Germany, The Netherlands, Czech Republic and Denmark) to take part of the project and our job was to garden with children in different schools, to do languages workshops for them and environmental education.
All of us were staying in an amazing hostel called “Mali Mrak” which was around 20 minutes away from the city center by tramway. The owner was a very nice man, we had a lot of fun with him!
From the very beginning, we really got along together with the other volunteers and we quickly became a “team”.
We were always cooking together or for each other, we sometimes even did international nights where we were cooking food from our countries.
During the weekends, we were often going to different cities in Croatia together to sightseeing, hiking and discover new parts of this beautiful country.
At the beginning of the project, we spent almost 2 weeks of training and preparing workshops for the chidren as we couldn’t meet them because of the COVID situation.
One of the best days of these 2 weeks was on Friday of the first week: we went hiking for the day until the top of a mountain. I loved this day because we felt the “team spirit”. We were helping each other, singing together and learning new songs sometimes in languages we didn’t even speak.
At the end of these 2 weeks, we went to Ucka’s camp on the mountains and in the middle of nowhere: this was THE best moment of this experience.
There, we stayed in an ornithological camp to learn about birds ringing and help with daily duties. We had no electricity, nor hot water or bathrooms and we slept on tents and it was raining for the whole weekend. BUT we were with incredible people that taught us a lot about nature and birds, we cooked and ate together, we stayed around the fire for hours, singing and laughing together. This one evening when we were all singing around the fire was the best moment of my whole experience in this project.
Then, we started to go to different schools in Zagreb to garden and make outside workshops for the kids (about languages or about environment). This was a great adventure: to meet children that don’t speak our language and have a different culture than us. I think we learned a lot from one another. It was very nice to see how excited and happy children were to meet people from other countries and how curious they were to learn with us.
When the Covid situation went a little worse, we had to prepare online workshops for the schools. It was very unfortunate as we loved to see the kids and the other way around.
But it was nice to continue to work as a team with the other volunteers anyway.
Unfortunately, I had to go home after one month of the project, but I will never forget this amazing month I spent in Croatia with all the great people I met: my volunteer’s team that will always be in my heart, the people from OAZA (especially Mile, Jasmina and Patrijia), the people from Ucka, Igor from the hostel and the people we met there.
I am so thankful that NGO like OAZA exist to make this kind of experience happened.
I wish to everyone to do this one day.
7. Judy, Ireland
Introduce yourself! Why did you decide to go abroad and volunteer?
Hi! I am Judy. I spent two months volunteering with an ESC project in Zagreb, Croatia. I found this project on the ESC website. I had just completed my bachelor’s degree in environmental science, and I was searching for a project which was environmentally focused. I found this project “Green Fingers” in Zagreb and applied. The project sounded interesting and the organisation, well set up so I went for it!
What did you do during your stay in Croatia? What were your tasks?
Together with the team of volunteers, we ran workshops on environmental topics with the primary school children and we worked in school gardens. We worked in various schools, mostly around Zagreb. We also spent a week working in schools in Petrinja. We created our own workshops and games and ran them with the children, mostly on environmental topics but also on culture and language. The gardening tasks involved planting, weeding, making new beds and preparing the soil. We also had the opportunity to work with another NGO, on a bird monitoring project.
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 the national parks Plitvice, Ucka, and Packlenica, and the cities Rijeka, Split, Opatija and Zadar. I also joined the climbing gym and found some Irish music sessions to go to!
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, wearing masks and when it was just the volunteers working together, it was like normality. One volunteer did get corona virus which meant we all had to isolate for two weeks. During this time, we created online workshops for schools. We also got to stay at a mountain house near Zagreb and see some of the forest surrounding the city.
What has volunteering given you?
Volunteering has helped me improve my leadership skills. We were often empowered during the project to run with our own ideas and to lead groups ourselves. It has given me the opportunity to meet many people from different countries and experience a new culture. It has also given me a strong sense to give back to others, when I am in the position to do so.
What are your plans after the project?
I plan to do more volunteering projects.
Would you recommend the experience of international volunteering to someone?
8. Subala, Poland
Through a wonderful arrangement of providence, I got the opportunity to volunteer in Croatia in the city of Zagreb in a non-governmental organization called OAZA. My decision to volunteer came about from being in the place of life where I needed to take a step in some direction and I thought that volunteering with European Solidarity Corps will help shape my life in this way. During my studies when I told my professor that I’m planning to do it he said to me that considering my personality and ambitions I should definitely take advantage of it. So, I did!
Even though the city was already familiar thanks to my previous Erasmus experience at University of Zagreb. I and I knew what I was signing up for at the same time I had no idea how everything will look like. I knew that our volunteering will mainly consist of working in school gardens and interacting with children through workshops and plethora of other activities. My mind was overwhelmed with questions. What kind of people will I meet? What is exactly what I got myself into in the middle of worldwide pandemics? I already knew people from OAZA NGO and I knew that they were fantastic people so it made me feel much more secure.
At the beginning getting to know so many people around my age who were from all over Europe was such a cool experience. I truly felt that everything is a huge learning experience. Getting aware of all the different customs from different countries and how much our worldview is shaped by that and then getting all together and doing something good for the Croatian children by arranging all those beautiful gardens and maintaining the greenery in the area was a wonder. Before my own eyes I saw how the principle of unity in diversity works. I’ve learned also many useful things about nature.
However, one of my most cherished and most powerful experiences was the first time that we went gardening. It was in Čučerje school nearby Zagreb in coordinated action with another volunteering organization. The school suffered an earthquake just half a year ago and it didn’t look the best. However just after the day of our work it looked amazing! I was reflecting that day how much time do would it take me to do all of this work myself. This thinking lead to the most important realization and lesson that I took from this project. It sounds like this: if you cooperate with other people you will achieve things that you never dreamt of achieving by working on your own.
9. Kea, Germany
It was the morning of the 4th of August, and I was standing on the balcony drinking the first coffee of the day when I received the Mail that I was accepted to a project called ˝Green Fingers˝ in Zagreb, Croatia. Even though it was still one and a half months to go until the project would start, I found myself in a starting swirl of happiness to be accepted, tremendous relief of having found something to do in my gap year despite all of the Corona difficulties and uncertainty whether I would be even able to attend the project because of all the ever-changing guidelines and the difficulties of finding a sending organization that would be willing to support me in a time of travel warnings and restrictions. But I guess that was the first lesson this short-term ESC taught me: How to stay calm and focused whilst navigating through the huge pile of appointments, packing lists, administrational tasks, and more. And I am convinced this wasn’t the only thing I learned there.
Those two months (actually three, including the traveling we did after the project ended) were definitely one of the most exciting, strengthening, and self-building months of my life. I remember when we all arrived on the first day, had our first dinner together, and had the first conversations, trying so hard to find common ground. And it worked; we grew together so quickly. Over a few days, a group of strangers became friends, home-sharers, roommates, and people to cook, chill and laugh with. In other words, I guess they turned out to be like a second family to me. And together, we mastered all the tasks that were given to us, it was from O.A.ZA., from just managing life in Zagreb, or from individual problems and/ or processes every one of us went through the project.
For me, our work in OAZA felt like a common thread that kind of guided us through this time. From the beginning, where we had a lot of lessons and support on how to adapt to the project and our new environment, to our first experiences in the school gardens of Zagreb and to all the trips we did in connection with the project (for example the ornithology camp in Učka on the second weekend or the fifth week of the project which we spent working in schools placed around a small town called Petrinja). Our volunteering work brought us to so many new places and experiences but still always let us return to our “home-base” in Zagreb, which I felt made us grow together even more.
The hostel Mali Mrak in Zagreb, where we were staying for the duration of the project, soon turned into a home for me where I really could relax, be with the others and just be myself. After a day of work or sometimes we spent away (either on a working or a free-time trip), for me, it was one of the best feelings to just come home and spend the evening in the garage (our eating place) and after that maybe move to the common room for a chill night of talking, watching a movie or playing some games. Those nights always made me feel so comfortable and happy that I only seldom felt the urge to do something special on those afternoons because just being there was already so special to me. But we still went out quite a few times, and of course, those days were amazing too. I can highly recommend just strolling around the center of Zagreb because you can find so many cool places there, whether it was a restaurant, a café, a new cool second-hand shop (second-hand shopping kind of became our hobby during that time…) or an incredible bar like Alcatraz, where the mix between the music, drinks, and the style was just perfect for a night (or two) out dancing.
I have so many highlights from the time there that I could never put them all into this text because actually (and I am really not kidding) almost every day had some highlight in it, and I enjoyed every single one of them. And I am so thankful to OAZA that they made our stay in Zagreb possible in spite of all the adaptions we had to make because of the pandemic from the beginning on and through all the issues we had to face over the time of our stay. You did a great job and, through that offered us, twelve volunteers, a huge chance for new experiences and time to develop ourselves. Thank you! <3
If, after reading this text, you want to become an international volunteer, take a look at the database of available projects in the European Solidarity Corps program. If you have any questions, feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.