Summarising one crazy year into a single blog post? Impossible, I know. However, I will try to give you an overview of the last year of my life, living as a volunteer in Austria. It will be a mix of my own experiences as well as giving you a general overview of what ESC Volunteering is and what to expect from it. For me, it was the best decision I have ever made.
– What is the European Solidarity Corps Volunteering program? –
Let me start by explaining what I did in the last year. I spent twelve months of my life volunteering through the European Solidarity Corps (ESC). This is an initiative of the European Union to create opportunities for young people to volunteer or work in projects that benefit communities and people around Europe. This can be both in your own country or abroad. There is a wide range of projects all around Europe, from helping to prevent natural disasters to working with disabled people, and everyone between the age of 18 and 30 can participate.
Out of the different activities that you can do, I chose to do individual volunteering abroad. This gives you the opportunity to participate in the daily work of an organisation and can last from 2-12 months. These projects cover themes like inclusion, environment and culture. I did a volunteering project for 12 months, which gave me the opportunity to really get to know the country and experience living abroad.
– How to choose/get a volunteering project? –
To find a project, you need to create an account on the ESC-website, which gives you the opportunity to apply for projects. There is an ESC projects database, where you can find all the available projects and you can install filters to only find the ones that are relevant for you. For example, only the volunteering projects, only projects in a specific sector or specific country.
In total there will be three organisations supporting you: a sending organisations (in your home country to help you before departing), a hosting organisation (the project you’re working in) and a coordinating organisation (in your ‘new’ country, to support the volunteers in the area).
My first idea was to volunteer in Spain, with the motivation to learn Spanish. I checked all the projects in the country and even applied to one that sounded appealing to me. Once I realised that there was only this one project in Spain that interested me, I decided to change my approach. I would be living in another country for a whole year, working around thirty hours per week in my project, so the most important thing was to like the project itself. I decided to be open to all different countries and apply for the projects that really suited my personality and interest, because I didn’t want to spend thirty hours per week doing something that I didn’t like. I sent around seven applications to cultural and social organisations around Europe and in the end I got a yes from two projects. I was lucky: my favourite project, the World Gymnaestrada in Dornbirn was one of them!
– My project: World Gymnaestrada 2019 –
As I said, my favourite project took me: the World Gymnaestrada 2019 in Dornbirn, Austria. The World Gymnaestrada is world-wide, non-competitive gymnastics event that is held every four years in a different place. This week-long festival attracted around 20.000 gymnasts from all over the world – in total 65 countries participated in the 2019 edition. The World Gymnaestrada focuses on inclusion; everyone, regardless of gender, age, race, religion, culture, ability or social standing can participate.
Before starting to work in my project, I had no idea what I signed up for and I didn’t quite understand how it could take a whole year (or even longer) to organise an event like this. I worked in an office with seven colleagues throughout the year, only towards the end some more people joined in the office building. We had an organising committee of around a hundred people and 8.000 volunteers to help with the organisation during the week of the event. Do you start to see the dimension of this event? Yes, me too, and I started to understand what I was a part of.
I worked 34 hours per week in the office, performing very different tasks. I was in charge of the ticket sale for the event (from costumer care to dividing all the tickets in contingents; I printed over 30.000 tickets and divided them), I was the main contact person for twenty of the participating countries (supporting them in their journey to the World Gymnaestrada 2019), I prepared all the documents for the visa-applications together with a colleague, I took care of the transfer schedule for an international meeting, I worked in the main office during the event and there were countless other tasks. I did the dishes, watered the plants, took photos during meetings and events, did the shopping when we needed something in the office and helped my colleagues with smaller tasks where possible. As you can see, every day was different and I got to learn many new things.
Of course, the highlight of this all was the actual week of the World Gymnaestrada 2019, which took place from the 7th to 13th of July. This week, as well as the ones before, were absolutely crazy. A working day from 6:00 until 23:00 was more a rule than an exception and the pressure was high. The only reason we could do it, was the adrenaline and excitement that we felt. The responses we got were overwhelming: we were complimented countless times on a great organisation, on how helpful we were and I received many thank-you-presents from the countries I supported. This week was not only filled with hard work, but we also got to enjoy the event. I saw the Opening Ceremony, the Dornbirn Special, the Closing Ceremony, numerous National Performances and the famous FIG Gala. Despite having spent most of the time working in the office, I could also experience the atmosphere of the event, which was amazing.
I picked a perfect project for me: I love gymnastics, I love organising and I was lucky enough to be welcomed into a very nice team.
– Where I volunteered: Dornbirn, Vorarlberg, Austria –
My project was in the city Dornbirn, in the area Vorarlberg, in the country Austria. I wasn’t planning to go to Austria at all, as I already speak German and I wasn’t too interested in a German-speaking country. However, the project sounded great, so I decided to go to Dornbirn anyway. I never heard of Dornbirn; I thought it was a small village and that were all the thoughts I had. It turned out that Dornbirn is a small city with around 50.000 inhabitants, all the way in the west of Austria, less than thirty minutes away from the German, Swiss and Liechtenstein border. Vorarlberg is a beautiful area, with Lake Constance in the north and the beautiful mountains of Montafon in the south. I never spent time in the mountains and here I realised how much I love the mountains. The seasons were great too: a warm autumn that lasted long, a cold winter with lots of snow (especially a bit more up in the mountains), many nice days in spring and a mostly hot summer. After one year of living in Vorarlberg, I can say that I visited many places and that I absolutely fell in love with the area. I’ll show you why:
– Let’s talk money: what I got as a volunteer –
Volunteering sounds nice, but how to survive without making money? The ESC has it all covered and it is no problem to survive as a volunteer with a very low, basically non-existent income. I will explain all the things that were covered from my personal experience, with the note that this can vary per project and country. However, it should give you a general overview.
- Travel costs: my travel costs from the Netherlands to Austria and back were covered completely. Based on the distance from your hometown to the project, there is a certain amount available to cover the travel costs. Of course, you can not fly business class with an expensive airline, but when you buy reasonably prices tickets, it should be no problem.
- Accommodation: my accommodation was arranged by my hosting/coordinating organisation. I did not have to do anything for this and they paid the rent for me. I had a my own bedroom and bathroom, and there was a shared kitchen. It was in a building in which around 150 people were living and six other volunteers who worked in Vorarlberg were living in the same building. For me this was a big plus, because it meant that I had people to hang out with from the beginning and there was always someone to go to after work.
- Household items: I was provided with the standard household items you need in your life. I got everything for the bed, towels and all the kitchen supplies to cook for myself. I didn’t have to pay anything for this, my hosting organisation got me these items.
- Food money: this one very much depends on the organisation you work in. In some organisations they provide you with one or more meals per day, in other organisations you get money to prepare your own food (also depending on the country and the living costs there). I received €220 per month for food and I didn’t eat in my organisation. For me, this amount was more than enough. I think I spent around €130 on groceries every month.
- Pocket money: again, this depends on the country and organisation. In my case, I received €150 per month as pocket money. This money I used to travel, to go out or to buy some non-food items that I needed.
- Travelling: every organisation has to provide you the transportation from your home to the work, either in the form of a bicycle or by paying for public transport (unless it’s walking distance). I got very lucky: I received a bicycle as well as a travelling card. I could not only use this card to go to work, but it was valid in the whole area of Vorarlberg. This was amazing, because it gave me the opportunity to travel around the area for free whenever I wanted.
- Kulturpass: I received a culture pass for the country of Austria, with which I could enter almost all the museums for free. It also gave me access to many cinemas, concerts and other cultural events. Again, I was very lucky to receive this from my coordinating organisation. I made a lot of use of this card, it was an amazing way to experience the cultural activities in the country!
- Language course: every volunteers receives a free language course in the language of the country, in this case German. Since I am already fluent in German, I didn’t have to participate and I got to use the money for a course of my choice. I decided to take a Spanish language course at the school and the coordinating organisation payed the costs of this as well as the book I needed.
In addition to this, I also got to participate in a Before Departure Training, an On Arrival Training and a Midterm Training, all costs completely covered (from transport to accommodation to food). My coordinating organisation also organised monthly events, of which the costs were completely or partly covered as well.
Believe it or not, but I managed to save money during my year of not making money.
– Training: before and during the project –
Before departing, I received a training in the Netherlands. This training was meant to prepare me for my stay abroad and to answer any questions I might have. It lasted half a day and in my case, it was three months before my departure. It was too early, I didn’t have too many questions yet. The day was fine, but it wasn’t particularly useful.
In Austria, I had an On Arrival Training, about a month after arriving in the country. This training took place in Vienna and volunteers from all over the country participated in this training. We had a group of around twenty volunteers and we all stayed in a hotel together for four days, right next to the building where the training took place. The main goals were to meet other volunteers from around the country, to talk about your project and any insecurities or issues you might have. Most importantly: having fun! I got to meet many cool people and had four amazing days in Vienna. It was very exhausting to get to know everyone and to be social all the time, but it was a great experience, mainly because we had a very nice group. I ended up seeing quite some volunteers; I either visited them in their place in Austria or they came to visit Vorarlberg.
Halfway through the year, there was a Midterm Training, in Salzburg this time. Because we had such a great group in the On Arrival Training, we decided to sign up for the same Midterm Training with a big part of the group. This was a big advantage, because I already knew almost everyone in the training and this saved a lot of getting-to-know-each-other-time. We could catch up with each other and have more serious conversations from the start. This training was mainly to talk about your experiences so far and about your goals for the future, both of the project and your life after. Before the training, we already spent some extra days in Salzburg with part of the group, so in total I had one great week there!
– Free time and social life –
After working 34 hours per week, there is quite a lot of free time left to fill. Before departing, my sending organisation warned me that I could be very lonely during my project, so I was prepared to read many books and watch a lot of Netflix. They could not have been more wrong, because after one month in Dornbirn, I felt like I hadn’t had a single free minute for myself yet. In the area of Vorarlberg there were eleven volunteers in total: seven (me included) lived in Dornbirn and the other four lived together in Göfis, a village about 40 minutes away by public transport. We all got to know each other in the first week and it turned out that we had a great group. During the year, I spent most of my free time together with the other ten volunteers. Cooking together at home, going out on Saturday night, sleepovers, going on hiking trips, doing a game night. There was always something to do!
Our coordinating organisation also organised activities every month and provided us with a mentor, a local who had previously participated in the ESC. I met my mentor maybe three times during the year, as we both didn’t make too much effort to meet up. For me this was absolutely fine, as I had enough things to do already. Every month, one of these mentors organised an activity and I participated in most of them. Some examples of activities were going to the Christmas market for a drink, going with an alpine coaster down the mountain and visiting a small cheese factory in the mountains. The highlight was the weekend trip: a fun weekend in the snow, where we stayed all together in a house in the mountains. There were activities, we cooked together, played games and talked. I think in total it only cost around €25 for everything (food, accommodation, activities). Our coordinating organisation in Vorarlberg was a really good one, so we were lucky to have all these things!
– The hard parts –
So far it sounds like a beautiful fairy tale, but of course it was not easy all the time. All in all, I have nothing to complain about and I loved the experience, but some things were more difficult during the project.
- The dialect: in Vorarlberg they speak a very particular dialect that even other Austrians cannot understand. Despite of being fluent in German, I didn’t understand much when I arrived. Some people tried to speak ‘proper’ German with me, but most did not or only managed it for a short period of time. This was frustrating in the beginning, because I had a hard time fitting in the team and understanding what was going on. After a while I managed to understand more of the language and at the end of my project I understood almost everything. This was definitely challenging and made me feel left out in the beginning.
- Missing friends and family: I never in my life felt homesick and in Austria it also was not a problem either. However, there were moments where I missed my friends and family. Sometimes I just wanted to spend a night with my friends at home and it was not possible. There were always cool things to do in Austria, but I still missed people sometimes.
- The working hours: my project was different from the other ones in the area, as it was a one time event with a lot of pressure. With the tasks I got, it was very difficult to stick to the 34 hours per week. We had many meetings or events in the evenings, which causes many over-hours. In December, I already had fifty over-hours, so then I had the Fridays off for a while. Towards summer and during the event, I worked many hours, up until 100 per week. When I left the project, after taking three weeks of holidays and also many days off after, I still had around 150 extra hours. My organisation gave me a generous compensation for this, so in the end it was no problem. However, during the year I sometimes felt frustrated by working so much and having so many responsibilities, if I compared myself with the other volunteers.
– What I learned from my ESC Volunteering project –
Let’s end with a more positive note: what I got from my ESC Volunteering project and what I learned. I can honestly say that I got a lot of good things from my year in Austria and that I would make exactly the same decision again to volunteer knowing what I know now.
- People: the best part of volunteering in Austria is the people that I met there. The volunteers that I lived with in Vorarlberg, the volunteers from around Austria, my coworkers and all the other people I met. Everyone had a different background, a different nationality, a different point of view and life story. From their stories and spending time with them, I learned the most and I have some amazing new people in my life, hopefully for a very long time.
- Work is not so important: of course it is important to have job and to enjoy this job, but in the end that all it is. A job. Besides your hours at work, there are many more hours in the day that you can spend however you want and those are the most important. I learned that I want a job that I love going to: nice coworkers, interesting tasks, preferably not 40 hours per week. While being at the job, I will always try my best, but then I will also remind myself that it’s work and that there’s much more to life than work.
- Dealing with pressure: especially towards the week of the World Gymnaestrada, the pressure in my work increased a lot. I learned to work very long days, deal with stressful moments and still maintain a good mood. I learned that you should always do your best, but you can’t do more than that. There will always be an unhappy person, no matter how hard you try. Fifty lovely compliments are worth a lot more than one bad one.
- Diversity: I learned to work with very diverse people. Not only in the team everyone had their own approach, but also the 65 nationalities we worked with all had their own way of doing things. By working together with all those, I learned to adapt to the needs of very different people.
- Memories: I have countless good memories of the last year. From silly moments that made me laugh a lot, funny saying that we repeated all year long, great images of beautiful places, and many many experiences I would have missed out on if I would’ve stayed in my comfort zone.
All in all, I’m very thankful for this experience and I know how lucky I am. I got a project that I liked, I was surrounded with lovely other volunteers and I made amazing memories. Shit, now I want to go again.