Volunteer Stories

 

Video Stories of International Volunteering

UNA Exchange is a dynamic voluntary organisation supporting many hundreds of people to volunteer internationally each year. For many young people stepping outside their comfort zone and meeting other cultures is a life changing experience. 

Meet some of these volunteers in the videos below and read their stories. 

 

Calum: The best thing I remember is the feeling of happiness

Calum is from Penarth near Cardiff. He has been involved with UNA Exchange since the age of 16, joining and leading volunteering projects in Italy, Poland, Lithuania and Wales. Read about his long journey with UNA Exchange which took him out of many troubles. 

Read Calum's Story...

Since I was a kid I was always in trouble. I always felt labelled because when I was younger I had a serious car accident and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. As I got older I was told I had ADHD and was put on medication for many years. When I finished school and went to college I didn’t want to take the medication anymore. I felt lost because I was on these drugs for so long – controlling my concentration and lot of other things – and I went downhill. I was getting into fights and a lot of troubling stuff with the law.

I am a not nasty person and it wasn’t anything malicious. I felt like a really confused young boy and had no idea what was going on in my head. Then I turned sixteen and was getting into much worse stuff – trouble with the law, drugs, hanging out with the wrong people. I was doing all sorts of crazy things and my mum was tearing her hair out with worry about me. Basically I needed some guidance and to get away from this life here. I was prejudiced towards certain nationalities and was listening to older people who I treated as my idols – if they said they didn’t like someone, I didn’t like them either.

I think this was the reason my youth workers arranged to send me to a project in Italy – to try to keep me out of jail. They tried to find somewhere I could go so I could get away and learn something away from the environment I had at home. I went to north Italy for two weeks to do environmental work in the mountains. We were using all sorts of different tools I have never seen before. It was a real eye-opener and life-changing because for a 16 year old boy like me it was the first time being away from home on my own. I was a trouble-child, but in that place I started to behave because it was different, I was outside my comfort zone. You have a chance to be yourself because you don’t have your friends around you trying to manipulate you to be like this or that. When you are a 16 year old kid you think you own the world and you know everything. Once you go to a place like this, even if you are the hardest, nastiest person, just try to do the tasks they give and you will succeed. You will become instantly a new person and will grow up quickly.

The first project gave me this addiction to travelling on my own. I felt such a freedom and I knew I could just go where I want and walk down a street with my backpack. I was excited about doing things which are scary and unknown – it makes your body so vibrant and you don’t know what is going to happen next. I became quite open-minded, because I realised that people in other countries are just people like me.

I continued to travel and spent two months in Poland and later I did an eight month EVS in Lithuania.  At the time I was going through a hard relationship break-up and just wanted to get away. I was actually supposed to go away before on a long-term EVS but I got in trouble with the police and was expecting to go to jail, probably for three and a half years (eventually I didn’t). After that my life had to change, I was really scared for long time. I couldn’t travel for year because I was on a tag so I felt like I was given a second chance by something and I felt the need to travel. The project in Lithuania just sounded like the best for me – I love working in the environment, working in nature and working with adults and children as well.

My work was the management of a National Park and I was basically like a Forest Ranger, working in the information centre in the park and working for the rangers. My job was maintenance of the park, giving tours to English speaking tourists and arranging boat trips for kids. I shared a house with a Spanish girl; at first she didn’t like me much because I look quite rough and she didn’t know what to think about me. I felt really dumb about this, because in the first weeks I thought that I was with somebody who doesn’t want to be with me. But later we started to talk and we got on so well we became like brother and sister. Because I am quite a practical guy and like working with tools I was helping her with work which was hard, and she was helping me with language. She was learning Lithuanian and she helped me to learn it, helped me to open a bank account and so on.

When I was over there I went through a time when I really wanted to come home, mainly because of the language barrier, but even so, I had really nice people looking after me and they kept me going. The nature around was absolutely stunning. I am from the city and I was living in the middle of the forest. It was magical – you look around and it is just trees for miles and miles. You can’t hear the cars and you feel you are in different world. It gives you time to think. I like to draw and I was drawing a lot more than I would here because there was no distractions like TV. It was really good to have a break.

I do constantly think of Lithuania. It is a long time ago (2014) and I wish I could go back, it was an amazing and life-changing experience that made me feel so much older in a good way. When I came back I was much more myself. I feel more spiritual in myself. I know me, I know what I like and how I would like to be treated. So I treat people that way. I genuinely felt that I was part of something special, which I had never felt before. Sometimes it was scary but that is what you need. You can’t live in a bubble, you can’t live in the same environment all your life, because you will not be open-minded, you will not learn how to be nice, how to treat people. I learned about respect, I learned about loyalty. I learned about lots of things which I thought never really existed when I was a kid.

After Lithuania, in one year I have done many big things which I would never have done when I was younger. I got a new place to live, a car and I have a child on the way. For many years I was working with cars and I thought that this could be my profession. In Lithuania I was doing work with the environment and decided that is something I want to do. I didn’t want to spend my time in messy garages anymore so I started to do landscaping.  I am doing work which is more or less the same type of work as I did in Lithuania and I really enjoy it.

I still do voluntary work. At least twice a month I help homeless people with food and clothing. I also work with children who have ADHD (like I used to when I was kid). I like to help people who need help. It’s nothing to do with my own image or how I feel, it is more that I feel people have a duty to help people. Someone needs to help homeless people – it could happen to any of us. I mean that’s what makes the world go round – not doing things for profit or greed, just doing something for pure kindness and love.

I used to be a nasty person because of the shit I was going through when I was younger and I know that past will never go away but I realised that I need to move forward and look to the future. I think EVS was the best cure for mental health – better than any drug, any therapist or doctor. I think the best thing I remember from projects is the feeling of happiness. I wasn’t really happy when I was younger and I thought happiness was doing things like trying drugs. I realised you can have happiness just by doing something – travelling and “living on the road.” If I haven’t had gone I would probably be dead or in jail. Seriously.

 

 

  

 

 

Alex’s Story: I realised that I was quite ignorant

Alex was living in Carmarthenshire when she first stepped into UNA Exchange and the world of travelling & volunteering, joining a two-week festival project in Catalonia. Since then she has led projects in Wales, trained other young people to volunteer abroad and helped to spread the word about international volunteering.

Read Alex's Story...

By accident, two years ago I attended a project for two weeks in Spain because there were free spaces, I was the right age and I had free time. I had done a bit of volunteering in Wales before but I had never travelled on my own before or volunteered abroad. I was always saying “I would love to travel one day” but I wasn’t really actively seeking it.  I just thought I would go, nice and brown, and see lots of sun and it will be like holiday for me. I ended up organising a music festival in Barcelona with 25 people from 14 different countries. 

Before I went I thought I was pretty mature, I knew how to hold my own and that I could get by. I was a student volunteer in Info-nation as part of my degree and I had moved back with my parents after few years living on my own. Then I landed in Barcelona and I knew no Spanish at all. I freaked out a bit “Oh my God, what am I doing? How I was going to get to this place?” No one spoke English well enough for me ask where am I supposed to go. I didn’t know if I was on the right train… But looking back on it, when I came home I realised that I had managed everything, developed my travelling skills and gained the confidence to know that I would be okay. I think it is important to learn life skills – like you can go to a different country on your own and not die or get abducted – those kind of things which you think might happen. 

Our work in the music festival involved moving a lot of benches. We helped to put flag poles up and put up gazebos. I remember all the volunteers from Barcelona and I think about them quite a lot. I think how lovely everyone was and about conversations we had. Even really normal things, like food for example: we had conversations like: “Ah, what do you eat in your country, what is kind of normal food for you?” There was guy called Sergei who is from Moscow and he was lovely. He was total opposite of that stereotype of Russian macho guys, drinking vodka all day. He was so sweet, so philosophical and he actually didn’t like vodka. Going to Barcelona just totally blew all of those stereotypes out of window. During free time in Barcelona, we did many different things: we explored the local town; talked; read together and taught each other skills like playing guitar or speaking a different language. Or we just played or slept! During the evenings, we mostly went out to the bar and had a great time!

I remember that day when we were leaving-I didn’t stop crying the whole day. I realised the day before that I needed to leave quite early in the morning so that I could get my flight. But so much had changed inside me, I actually didn’t care if I missed my flight or not. I actually ended up missing my flight and was totally comfortable with it and left Barcelona day later, while my mum was freaking out.

I came home from Barcelona and bought myself a massive map that I still have on my wall. I have got lots of dots on the map for places where I want to go and that kind of inspired me to actually go to travelling around Europe. I travelled around eleven different cities and learned about youth work across Europe. It inspired me a lot and I ended up doing my dissertation for my degree on international volunteering.

I have never learnt so much in two weeks as I did that time. I realised that I was quite ignorant, that I was that kind of stereotypical British person not really knowing anything outside of Britain, for example I was really bad with geography. On the first day on girl said to me: “Oh, I am from Belarus” and I didn’t know where that was. I thought it was in South America, because for me it sounded like Bolivia. The other kind of mess up I made in terms of geography was thinking that Taiwan was in Thailand, because they both start with “Thai” but girl from Taiwan explained to me that it is very different.

Now I am much more aware about what is going on in other countries.  I met a woman who live in Ukraine in the city which was surrounded by conflicts recently and I was really worried about whether she is alright. It just made me more interested in the world.

I started to volunteer and travel much more, and I started to do the things that I have been maybe little bit scared to do before. I was brave enough to lead a project in Wales; be responsible for six people who had never been to Wales before and keeping people together as a group and keeping them happy. I started to be more patient with people and tried to understand why they act in certain way.

It is quite interesting that five people could go to the same work camp at the same time and they all could come back and say that they learned different things and changed in different ways. I think that this experience inspires everyone and I think that everyone should have the opportunity to volunteer abroad at some point. I think it should be part of the school education!

It is great opportunity to see more of world. I know it is really scary and you can be really apprehensive about who you are going to be with, what you are going to do, that you don’t speak the local language….forget about that. Just jump in with both feet and go. And I don’t think that you will regret it..

 

 

 

  

Joe’s Story: It will give your life more focus and that is a really valuable thing

Joe completed an European Voluntary Service project in Tallinn, Estonia. The direction of his life since leaving Estonia has been highly influenced by his volunteering experience with the UNA Exchange. Read about Joe’s journey which inspired him to study sociology at university and complete a postgraduate degree in Eastern European studies.

Read Joe's Story...

I completed my European Voluntary Service (EVS) whilst I was a college student in 2009. I was unsure whether I wished to go to the university and I wanted to travel, see a bit of the world and just do something a little bit different. I also wanted to get away from the small village in Wales where I lived and EVS sounded like really good deal.  I did not do very well in school because I was quite lazy and I did not want to take part in anything which I didn’t consider fun and enjoyable. When I was applying for the project I can remember not really paying enough attention when reading about the projects on offer. My project was in Russian and it was said very clearly in the description. However, I realised this fact two weeks before I left and by this time I had bought an Estonian language book and had started to learn Estonian.

I was just really naive going into it. I was 18 when I started my project and I remember flying over Tallinn without having any idea about Eastern Europe that time. I remember that as the plane was coming to land I looked at the window and saw just endless rows of Soviet tower blocks. I grew up on the farm, where everything is like three hundred years old and there is cow everywhere, so this view was bit daunting for me. I thought “Oh I am not going to be there, don’t worry.” However, that is exactly where I ended up. I was also in the worst part of that district. I lived and worked in a quite segregated Russian part of Tallinn.

I was working in an international youth club of Tallinn. On paper, the project was about social cohesion and education. I found out that in Estonia they had divides between ethnic Russians who came to Estonia when it was part of Soviet Union and ethnic Estonians who were discriminated against when Estonia was part of Soviet Union. The idea of the project was to bring these together and integrate the ethnic Russians after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The project was essentially an afterschool club where kids learnt English. 90% of the kids came from ethnic Russian backgrounds. It is quite interesting that my experience of Estonia was not like everyone else’s experience because I lived and worked in this Russian district. I would take classes on my own and I had like ninety kids and four-five groups a day ranging from six to sixteen years old. I was teaching kids all day and I was only 18 that time teaching sixteen years old. I just followed textbooks and I did not have much freedom to do my own thing. But I think at that point it was good for me, because I was quite young. I was really lucky with the project I found because it was really structured.

Russian language was probably the most challenging thing on the project. Even though I was there for year I should really have been a lot better. I think that is something I regret because I was not able to converse with kids I taught. But I think, when I look at it, that I was not really ready for it.

Luckily there was a strong network of EVS volunteers in Tallinn so I didn’t have any strong culture shocks. I lived in house with six people from different countries: Germany, Russia, France, Lithuania and Italy. Living with these people was great. We never really had any problems or cultural misunderstandings. We were mostly just socializing with each other and hanging around. Estonia is quite homogenous and there were not many foreigners so when I went out it was really easy to talk to people because they were interested in us. I also travelled through other EVS projects in Estonia and to Lithuania, Latvia, Finland and Russia. I had incredible mid-term training. It was in the middle of the woods during the Estonian winter. There was an unbelievable amount of snow. I experienced skiing and going to the sauna with other volunteers.

When I came back from EVS I believe I was a little bit more mature. I think it changed me in lots of ways. The whole package essentially forced me to be a bit more adult. During the project I did not feel like I was taking all that information in or becoming an amazing EVS volunteer. However, the professional experience I gained from Estonia became really apparent after I left. I have always been interested in politics and I think EVS gave me the opportunity to focus that passion on particular issue which I found really interesting. It allowed me to look in detail at a different, unknown part of the world. It changed the way I approached university completely and made me realized that I would like to work with minorities.

There was linear trajectory between my EVS experience and what I am doing now. I gained an undergraduate degree in sociology having written a thesis focused on social housing; which was informed by some of my experiences such as looking at the soviet tower blocks. I did a postgraduate degree as well, studying pretty much what I did on my EVS. I studied Eastern European area studies and wrote my thesis on ethnic Russian in the Baltics and structural discrimination. After working for four months in an integration centre in Berlin I got job in SEWREC (East Wales Regional Equality Council) based on my previous experiences with minorities. 

I think EVS is a great experience from an employment perspective. Especially if you are based in the UK, where lots of British people do not have any European or international experiences of working or living abroad. If you have a good EVS project and do something you find really interesting, it will give your life after EVS more focus and that is a really valuable thing.

 

 

 

 

Written Stories

Lettice 

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Applying for EVS was really easy thanks to UNA Exchange. I filled in a short application form (2 pages) and then waited to be contacted. Soon I started receiving information about EVS projects I could join. After approximately 2 weeks I saw a project that appealed to me; working at a youth information centre in Austria.

Click here to read about Lettice’s wonderful adventure…

 

 

Andy

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Photo: Sam Tarling / Oxfam

Andy was an active volunteer with UNA Exchange in the early 2000s. He took part in many volunteering activities in Wales and abroad, including a Long Term EVS in Iceland. He also spent time working with us as a staff member, co-ordinating a large programme of work in Carmarthenshire.

Click here to read about Andy’s volunteering journey…

 

 

Jack

Jack
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Jack has been an enthusiastic and active UNA Exchange volunteer since 2010. He has led many projects in Wales and abroad, attended international seminars and delivered trainings. Jack now works for the National Trust in Ipswich.

Click here to read about Jack’s volunteering journey…

 Antonio

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Antonio initially came to Wales (from Italy) to volunteer on our Carmarthenshire programme of environmental volunteering. Following a return visit for a second volunteering experience Antonio was employed by UNA Exchange, co-ordinating a large programme of work in Carmarthenshire. Now living in Ammanford, he has remained a very active volunteer up to the present day! 

Click here to read about Antonio’s volunteering journey…

Yan Lai

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Yan Ling came to the UK from Malaysia and has led many groups of international volunteers in Wales over the years. She has inspired us with her passion for volunteering. Most recently she has led a group of St John Wales Cymru volunteers on a project in rural Japan!

Click here to read about Yan Lai’s volunteering journey…

 
RosieRosieRosie spent many years volunteering with UNA Exchange and contributing to its development. Her journey took her through all our programmes/activities (volunteering abroad and in Wales, training, representing the organisation at events and seminars abroad, leading activities, etc.). She was Chairperson of the Executive Committee for two years before becoming Chief Executive of London Youth.

Click here to read about Rosie’s volunteering journey…

 

 

 

Workcamp Stories

Hannah

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Hannah started her journey with UNA Exchange because she was looking for ways to develop her skills further after finishing her Events Management degree in Cardiff. So far she has attended Leaders’ Training and went on to lead a project in Pembrokeshire preparing for a festival. She has also joined us for a Gender Issues training in Germany.

Click here to read about Hannah’s volunteering journey…

Harry

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Harry Lee got in touch with us after a recommendation from his cousin, Yan Ling. He wanted to incorporate a volunteer project in to his already-planned travels in Japan.

Click here to read about Harry’s volunteering journey…

Laura

Laura Edwards

A Cardiff native, Laura has been involved in many areas of our work. During her EVS project in Turkey she got involved with supporting and promoting workcamps. Back in Wales, she has led a workcamp and supported trainings for volunteers preparing to go abroad.

Click here to read about Laura’s volunteering journey…

 

 

 

European Voluntary Service (EVS) Stories

Darren

Darren’s first involvement with UNA Exchange was in 2010 when he joined a three-week volunteering project in Austria. Since then he has spent more than two years living abroad in Moldova and France as well as Austria. Now back in Wales, he is a valued part of UNA Exchange, supporting residential events, trainings and other volunteering activities. 

Click here to read about Darren’s volunteering journey…

Tom

Tom is from a small village outside the city of Bradford in the UK. He used to work as a graphic designer but when his grandmother got sick in 2012 he decided to return home to look after her. After two years she had improved so Tom wanted to get back into work again by undertaking some Erasmus+ projects. Tom had an excellent opportunity to explore Romanian culture and develop his passion for media during his EVS project.

Click here to read about Tom’s volunteering journey…

Angela

Ángela is originally from Spain but now lives in Cardiff as a result of her volunteering. After her EVS, she found a job in Wales related to her EVS project, teaching people how to ride a bike safely and promoting cycle in the city. She still keeps in touch with UNA Exchange and EVS volunteers and feels it is great to have an international community around you. 

Click here to read about Angela’s volunteering journey…

 

Find more volunteer stories on our blog