Claudia Dalby speaks to participants of the European voluntary program about their experiences abroad, and what the program means for wider EU engagement.
Alexander Marshall made a spontaneous decision to take part in the European Solidarity Corps: “One morning I woke up in my flat in Sweden with a text.” It was an offer from the volunteering online platform, which he had signed up to and noted a preference for Eastern European countries. He accepted. “Two weeks later I found myself in Sofia, Bulgaria.”
There, Alexander worked as an administrative volunteer for the Open Space Foundation, overseeing an archaeological renovation project in Veliki Preslav in eastern Bulgaria.
Chairwoman of the Open Space Foundation Pepa Peneva Veleva, told the University Observer about the project. “Veliki Preslav is a small, historical place - our second oldest capital. There, we are working with local people to resolve a range of problems, [caused by] young people emigrating because of the lack of opportunities for work and development, an aging population and a very low budget for infrastructure.”
The project has led to huge changes in the community. At first, residents were unsure of the initiative. “It was so hard to convince them to rent their big, empty houses to accommodate the volunteers.”
Now, some residents have opened guest houses, and the town has transformed with tourism and business. “We are so excited to observe how the town is changed each year. It is slow, but [it] happens.
Since 2012 we have hosted 245 volunteers, and seen how this program changes mentalities. Maybe this is one of the best programs of the EU.”
Alexander described the experience as “absolutely unforgettable. I am so happy that I took part in it. You make friends from all over the world, and you have a ton of fun every day.”
The European Solidarity Corps (ESC) was launched in 2016 by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, with the spirit of solidarity directed towards the refugee crises that was hitting Europe hard at the time.
“Young people across the EU will be able to volunteer their help where it is needed most, to respond to crisis situations, like the refugee crisis or the recent earthquakes in Italy,” Juncker said in his 2016 State of the Union address.
The program was a relaunch of the original European Voluntary Service, altered for broader appeal and with the idea to expand the number of activities. The new online platform allows young people and organisations to connect with one another and reach out with offers for short- or long-term stays.
As of February of this year, 200,000 young Europeans between the ages 18 and 30 have registered online to participate in an international voluntary program.
The relaunch also supports a broader idea of solidarity: that solidarity grows when someone is given an opportunity, but also when the first step is taken by themselves.
The non-profit organisation Leargas manages ESC funding in Ireland, where there are 60 active organisations receiving international volunteers each year.
Speaking with the University Observer, Leargas ESC Coordinator Suzanne Kavanagh spoke of a new funding wing of the program, where youth community groups can apply to address issues in their community.
“The idea is building solidarity within the community. There are seven ongoing solidarity projects in Ireland at the moment, on issues such as fast fashion, climate action and supporting language barriers to refugees.”
Participants receive €500 total funding to work on a solidarity project, and they can also apply for a project coach for guidance towards achieving their goals.
Kavanagh emphasises the overall aim of the program is that “it should not cost a young person anything or have any barriers to participation - even if that means extra supports [will be provided], from visas, supplies, vaccinations or disability supports.”
This means that volunteers need not spend a penny during their stay. A key framework of the European Solidarity Corps is that volunteers receive between €280-400 a month for personal spending money, on top of accommodation, food and return travel fully covered, which Kavanagh describes as “essential.”
The ESC is funded under the Erasmus+ initiative, which has funded university exchanges for over 10 million students, and received €2.3bn in 2018. Investment in the future of young people is a hallmark of the EU project, and Erasmus+ is by far one of its most well-known initiatives towards engagement.
With 1,420 Irish volunteers registered so far, Leargas has received 25% more Erasmus+ funding in the past year to increase numbers within Ireland. Irish levels of support for the EU are continually among the highest in the bloc, so why does the country have some of the lowest involvement in a program offering free access to voluntary projects?
“The biggest barrier we’ve found is that the name ‘Solidarity Corps’ doesn’t immediately tell you what the project is,” says Kavanagh. “But once people get past the name, they realise there are so many opportunities for experience and organisations to be involved with.”
EU citizens can also apply for jobs and traineeships through the ESC. This increases the accessibility of Erasmus+, as you do not need to be a student to apply.
As a European Solidarity Corps volunteer, Kerry native Ellen O’Doherty spent a month working under the August heat in Greece.
“It was amazing. When I came back I told all my friends to look up the Corps because it was amazing, a great experience.”
In Kalamata, a small town in southern Greece, a street festival is celebrated each year. “It started after the 2008 crash, just to have something to do. They kept it going so they started to need volunteers.”
Ellen, soon to start her final year of university, was recommended the ESC as a way to get out of Ireland for the summer. The street festival caught her eye. “I knew I wanted to go to the Mediterranean.
There was a huge emphasis on music, but also an emphasis on Greek culture, so there was modern Greek music, and a lot of traditional Greek food and music.
Most of the volunteering projects are quite labour intensive, which was challenging because it was like 39 degrees.
They were really accommodating. It was similar to [volunteering at] an Irish festival in that you came in and did your work but you always got a couple of hours off, to go and enjoy the festival. It was so much fun.”
Fundraising is often a crucial barrier to equal access for many who want to volunteer internationally, as some programs require participants to fundraise their flights, accommodation or other costs in order to participate.
Self-funding requirements instate a barrier to those who cannot easily access funds within their community and who may miss out on opportunities to volunteer abroad or travel internationally at all.
Increasing equal opportunity initiatives has been widely successful, according to Irish MEP Mairead McGuiness.“With this in mind for the next long-term EU budget 2021-2027, the Commission is proposing a new programme for the ESC beyond 2020 with €1.26bn to further broaden the opportunities it offers,” she told the University Observer.
The program is intended as an initiative of solidarity going beyond international borders - ordenot just EU. Volunteer programs are located in the 27 EU member states, but a total of 55 nationalities in Europe, West Asia and North Africa are entitled to apply for volunteer projects. Turkey has the highest number of registrations, with Russia and Morocco also showing high levels of involvement.
With the program open to those who may be otherwise held back by ‘Fortress Europe’, the hope is that the program will continue to expand by allowing solidarity projects and organisation funding outside the EU. At the moment, all volunteers receive the same funding, so the hand of solidarity is extended to young people from countries such as Syria, Palestine, Libya, Egypt and Lebanon to take the opportunity to travel and develop themselves.
The European Solidarity Corps ethos fits straightforwardly into a vaster narrative of European-wide engagement, where individuals are given the opportunity to do something that wouldn’t be possible without a cohesive, continent-wide agreement.
However, the EU has known it has a citizen engagement issue. Only 4 in 10 of 2019 Eurobarometer participants are aware of an EU co-financed project in their area, and this is a significant increase from previous years. Millions are spent each year in communication campaigns promoting EU policies to citizens.
Feelings of citizen detachment from the EU, rustled by Brexit, reside in a lack of understanding of its complicated processes, copious policies and a democratic gap. With turnout peaking at 50.66% in 2019, it's clear that many Europeans are not substantially engaging with the EU outside of passing signs marking local infrastructure as EU funded, for example.
Citizen engagement issues are rooted in EU initiatives coming from the top-down rather than bottom-up. Through the ESC, the EU is supporting the opportunity for open dialogue between young people and established charities or organisations. Made possible through liberal funding, the involvement of the EU has the possibility to be seen as positive rather than imposed.
Engagement with community and opportunity based projects can lead to positive outcomes, from the individual level of satisfied volunteers, to the improved community spirit in Veliki Preslav, or in Ireland with homelessness charity Peter McVerry Trust.
“If you’ve done it, your life might completely turn around. If not, it’s still an amazing experience.”
Natasza Wdowicka is the European Solidarity Corps coordinator for Peter McVerry Trust. Six years ago, she was a volunteer for the then European Voluntary Service.
This experience had been a key part of her career. “Organisations might not see the impact of the program right away, or the personal impact on the volunteer. But I can see the impact it has had on me now, six years after.”
Peter McVerry Trust has received a total of 23 ESC volunteers since 2011, and say that receiving volunteers is part of an important learning dialogue for both parties, where the benefit for them is receiving the funding and an outsider with new experience.
For the volunteers, Natasza is above enthusiastic about the personal development volunteering for the program offers. “It really gives you the chance to not focus on day-to-day difficulties and have a chance to give back, to explore, and meet people from all over Europe.
Volunteers try things they would never try if they stayed at home, and challenge themselves constantly.”
30-year-old volunteer Klara from the Czech Republic is an experienced social worker, and came to Ireland in October to volunteer for one year with Peter McVerry Trust as an upskilling opportunity. “For me, I would be collecting good practice by experiencing social work abroad. I could bring experience with the Housing First initiative to the Czech Republic.”
Volunteers in Dublin receive the higher end of the monthly allowance. Klara has found that the allowance could be plenty of money in a smaller town, but the high cost of living in Dublin means it does not go a long way.
“It is not enough. We have to stay home on weekends. I’d like to go to gigs, travel around Ireland and spend time meaningfully, but I have to budget for food and daily transport.”
Now six months into her project, Klara says she is settling in well. “I am part of the team, they know my competencies and what I can offer.
Of course, the service is very overwhelmed at the moment, but the challenges are the same in all countries. Experienced people are needed everywhere.
I would 100% recommend [participating], for all ages. For younger people, it is to get experience living alone, to think about their future and find out about themselves, to grow internally and develop skills.
For people my age, it is useful for their career. They can practise their creative thinking and implement ideas in a new country. They can network and have contacts in an international social sphere.”
Upon the increasing spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, Klara updated the University Observer that she and some volunteers in Ireland had gone back to their home countries.
“Our projects may be postponed, but it’s not sure. I wish to stay in Dublin, but government recommendations were to get home asap. We were told that we cannot be on the front line as a precaution.
I want to mention my thanks to the Housing First team - the chance to be part of this team is just unique.
I hope it will be possible to come back when this is over.”
European Solidarity Corps projects and registration can be found on the European Youth Portal.
Young people can register for the European Solidarity Corps at 17 years old, but cannot start an activity until reaching the age of 18. European Solidarity Corps projects are available to people up to the age of 30 years old. FAQs and the full list of participating countries can be found here.