European volunteering: A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

Oksana Yanush from Lviv works as a European Voluntary Service (EVS) volunteer in Germany. In her normal life, she is a freelance journalist and photographer whose work can be found at Studway, Hromadske radio, and on her blog, oksanayanush.com.ua. Right now, though, she is far removed from her journalist life, trying out something totally different.

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“I work with the German organisation, Oberlin, which provides social support for families, particularly the children and teenagers of Alb-Danube (a small district in southern Germany). From Monday to Friday, I visit schools and youth clubs in Blaustein, a dictrict of Ulm,” says Oksana. “Once a week I play basketball, climb ropes, and jump on a trampoline with 10-13-year-old kids. Other days, I just spend time in the youth club with German teens; they are fans of rap, board games and football. We get together in a cozy space to cook, dance, play foosball, and just talk. The club is open to everyone: not only typical German teens spend time there, but also children of immigrants, and young people from many different backgrounds. This is what makes this place so important: it teaches kids to be open and social.”

It was only once she arrived in Germany that Oksana found out exactly what her volunteer experience would look like. Before that, all she had was motivation and confidence in her decision to volunteer.

“This is such a great opportunity, how could I pass it up?” she says. “I worked with a 24-year-old German man and I asked him, ‘Why don’t you take the opportunity to go to another country for a year or a half a year?’ He answered that he would be losing the opportunity to earn money. You may earn money by staying where you are, but you will lose out on the unique opportunity to live in a different environment, learn a foreign language and culture, meet cool people, travel, and explore what you really want to do with your life. In my placement I work with children and I absolutely love it. Why didn’t I do this before? Now realise that I want to work with kids.”

школа в Ульмі

How did you decide that you wanted to participate in the programme?

“This decision came to me a long time ago. The first time I heard about the European Voluntary Service was during a summer camp in Poland. I was told that there was the opportunity to travel to the EU for a whole year. I thought about it for quite a while and did some research into the programme. By the time I started actually putting together the documents for my application, I was convinced I wanted to take part in the programme. You know, when you start actually doing something, you begin to understand if it is really something you want. I had two main reasons for participating in the programme: to experience another culture and to live in a different environment. Although Ukraine is a part of Europe, everyday life is very different in Germany.

To speak to the technical aspects of the process, there are three parties involved in applying for a volunteer activity: the volunteer, the host organisation in the EU, and the originating organisation in Ukraine. Ukrainian organisations have EU partners to which they can send candidates for volunteering projects. I cooperated with the Lviv organisation, Union Forum. I also participated in summer camps with the help of that organisation, which provides these logistic services for free.”

You submitted over a hundred applications, but got responses from only two projects. Is the competition really that high?

“Many projects don’t reply. I got positive responses from only two projects, and then there was a long procedure for project approval and submission of documents.

Competition is definitely high, but everything depends on luck. A volunteer I met during the project submitted only two applications and was accepted.”

Oksana says that English is a must for EVS and some projects may also require knowledge of the host country’s language. “EVS covers one semester of language classes for volunteers. On top of that, a long-term stay in a foreign environment forces you to improve your language skills,” she says. “I greatly improved my German and English in only a three-month stay in Germany.”

Oksana also talks about the practical elements of the programme. EVS provides an opportunity to travel to a European country for a year or six months, typically to work on a social project. EVS covers living expenses, meals, and also provides pocket money, which is enough for everyday needs.

Volunteers work no more than 6-7 hours per day, usually doing creative work.

Volunteers may encounter some challenges depending on the host country. For instance, the amount of pocket money allotted is defined for each country depending on its economic situation, but the actual sum provided may be smaller than defined in cases where a host organisation provides meals. Some organisations may misapply this rule, giving less pocket money but not providing meals. Volunteers should bring up this type of issue. In extreme cases, volunteers can directly contact the European Voluntary Service. Another problem can arise when a volunteer works more hours than prescribed by the contract. These types of expectations should be clearly articulated.

Is there an opportunity to travel to other countries?

Yes. It’s about an hour from where I am located to Austria. I plan to go to Spain on the weekend. The tickets are cheap, and if you save money, there are many opportunities to travel.

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What benefits did you get from volunteering? How will this experience help you in the future?

As I’ve said, working here has made me realise how much I enjoy working with kids. Now I am thinking about permanently working in this sphere.

Secondly, I significantly improved my German and English language skills. Thirdly, I met many interesting people. I experienced the German lifestyle, including the responsible German attitude toward everything from waste sorting to managing the workday. For instance, some of the work my organisation performs in Germany, like sitting and playing with kids, may not even be considered real work in Ukraine. But Germans are responsible for even seemingly trivial work.

At the end of their volunteer projects, participants receive a European Youthpass. This document describes the volunteer’s work with EVS and is considered a big asset on a CV. The Youthpass can be very useful for securing employment with international organisations in Ukraine as it represents proof of international experience.

Moreover, if a volunteer enjoys living and working in the host country, at the conclusion of the volunteer term, the project organisation might suggest opportunities for internships as a way to prolong their stay in the country.

Background information

The European Voluntary Service (EVS) is a European Commission programme that allows young people to work abroad on a voluntary basis. EVS volunteers are usually involved in projects in the fields of culture, sports, environment, work with children, etc. The average duration of EVS projects is 6-12 months, but there are some shorter projects (none less than two months). Short-term projects (three weeks) are possible only if they engage people with special needs or more than 10 volunteers. People aged from 17 to 30 can participate in EVS projects. Volunteers can take part in EVS only once in a lifetime (except in the case short-term projects, after which volunteers can take part in one long-term project). Participation in the programme is free; only a minority of projects require volunteers to pay a small sum (up to 10% of total costs) to cover transportation to the host country.

More information about the programme:

– EVS website – http://europeanvoluntaryservice.org/

– European Commission website – http://ec.europa.eu/youth/programme/mobility/european-voluntary-service_en.htm

– European youth portal – https://europa.eu/youth/volunteering/evs-organisation_en

The full text of the interview was published in Ukrainian on Platforma website.