My name is Claudia and I come from Cluj-Napoca, which is the biggest city in Transylvania. Some things about myself: I am curious about other cultures, probably this is one of the main reasons I am a language enthusiast and that I love to travel, I am a big foodie and I like books and working out outdoor. I have been in cultural exchange programs before through Work&Travel USA, during the summers of 2016, 2015 and 2014, which helped me get the travel bug and wanting to experience other cultures through similar programs. In addition to this, I have graduated a Master program in English, in Community Development and Urban Planning and I hold a Bachelor in Applied Modern Languages, specializing in English and Spanish, which allows me to work with them in translations, business and other kinds of areas. But I have to mention that I also speak a bit of French too as I studied it 8 years, in middle and high school.
I discovered EVS at the beginning of 2017, and by the end of the year, I managed to find the current project I am participating in. More precisely, I am an EVS short-term volunteer, for SFERA Macedonia, for the project called “Clean Up Your Mess”. What made me want to be part of this was the sustainability and upcycling concepts that were being put in practice and because of the friendly atmosphere at the organization that I got a grasp of during the interview. Another thing I would like to mention is that I have never been in this Balkan area before so I was ready to have a new cultural experience that I am happy to have been open to.
Recycling and upcycling are very important topics nowadays, to increase awareness over responsible use of nondegradable materials that the consumerist culture everywhere encourages us to own and making us more conscious about the endless possibilities that recycling and upcycling can offer, with some creativity and unconventional thinking. It would be useful to mention some informational insight between the two concepts, to better understand the usefulness and the great impact of “Clean Up Your Mess” project. When something is recycled, typically plastics, paper, metals or glass, it is broken down so the basic materials recovered can be remade into something new. In the process of upcycling something, you do not break anything down. One can rework or reconstructs the product in a number of different ways, but the material stays the same and is at minimum the same if not better quality than when you started. More precisely, my project consisted in weekly projects with middle-school children from St Kliment Ohridski School, here in Bitola, focused on upcycling. Part of the project was brainstorming ideas so that the workshops could be as efficient as possible, in terms of encouraging sustainability and make it fun and useful for the children, as well as collecting materials for the crafts. I had the support of my mentor and the organization every step of the way in choosing the right idea to implement in the workshop. Before every workshop, I had to collect and prepare the materials so that everything could go according to plan during the activities with the children. During the month of December, the workshops with the children consisted in making a Christmas chimney made of cardboard boxes, festive decorations made from egg cartons and cardboard boxes and a Christmas tree created entirely from toilet paper rolls. The crafts were divided in 3 weeks, approximately 30-40 minutes each. The first week was introductory and we started with covering the cardboard boxes with white paper and gluing them together, which represented the basis of the Christmas chimney. The second week began with cutting red brick shapes, using red paper and some cardboard stencils, followed by gluing them to the chimney. While some children were doing this, others had to start painting the toilet paper rolls for the Christmas tree. In the third and final week of December, the crafts came together as all the children managed to finalize them.
During the month of January, my project mate (also EVS from Romania) and I decided to do jump ropes from plastic bags. The first step, again, was collecting the materials which is what easy to do, given that we had all sorts of bags in our house, from the shopping. First, we decided to try out the idea by ourselves, to make sure it can be implemented in the workshops. It proved to be a successful attempt, so we moved the idea in the classroom, with the children. The first workshop consisted in cutting the plastic bags into threads and then putting them together through knots, four by four. In the following workshop, we moved on with the second step of the jump rope craft by bradding, three by three, the plastic bag threads and then two braids were braided together again, to give it weight. While the first month of the project I focused on making children aware that there are many forms of cardboard out there, in various shapes and sizes, that can be used in new and fun ways, while reducing cardboard waste and saving energy and resources, in the second part of the project, the focus turned to plastic which although is an important component in today’s economy, it is very damaging for the environment, given the high amounts present everywhere and is slow to degrade. As part of the project, I had to document my upcycling activities through videos and photos, taken each step, from collecting materials to implementing the ideas in the workshops. In addition to this, after the completion of each craft, I had to write articles on them that were published on the SFERA website: http://voluntarysfera.org/ . All relevant photos and videos were put together, in the end, to make a video of the EVS project experience.
An important local activity that I had the chance to contribute to was Floorball. This is a type of floor hockey SFERA organizes regularly, in different high schools, to promote a healthy and active lifestyle. Every time a Floorball activity is organized, SFERA through its representatives, including us EVS volunteers, have to go to a given high school, bring the necessary equipment for Floorball and do a demonstrative game with the children, followed by leaving them play by themselves, for a full hour, us SFERA representatives just being there to keep the score and referee.
Art Attack is the organization’s monthly painting activity, created for anyone who wants to spend a relaxing evening at the headquarters and exercise their creativity. I managed to contribute to the organization of the event by getting everything ready (organizing the work space with canvases and anything else necessary for a painting activity), so that the participants enjoy the event.
In the month of December, SFERA organized a charity event, named “Give your share to show you care”, in order to raise funds for the Children at the Rehabilitation Center that I participated in. More precisely, what I had to do is fundraising, throughout the event and which was a success because we managed to raise a big sum of money, used for buying educative and fun toys for the children there. Besides the fundraising that I contributed with, I also had the chance to create promotional materials for the event, consisting in a poster.
As part of the project, I had the opportunity to organize and teach Romanian lessons for beginners. I started with creating a poster for I, as part of the Facebook event that was created. The lessons took place on an average twice a week, depending on the number of students and their availability, and consisted of activities, conversations and videos with cultural insight, meant to give students a grasp of Romanian language and culture.
Also, as part of sharing the culture, together with the other EVS volunteers, coming also from Turkey, I was responsible of organizing the Intercultural Night, an event in which every country (including the host one, Macedonia) presented themselves through a Power Point presentation with interesting facts, their customs, traditions and music. This was followed by delicious tastes of traditional food and drinks, which us, volunteers, prepared home.
Observing throughout a month and a half the community of Bitola in all its forms, my project mate and I organized an event on a busy area of Shirok Sokak that consisted in putting up two boards, each with one question: “What would you do if Shirok Sokak didn’t exist?” and “What do you want to accomplish in 2018?”. The idea of the project came from the cultural shock we had when we came here, seeing the main downtown street in Bitola always crowded, with its restaurants and coffee shops full of people, especially in the peak part of the day and not only. We wanted to do something different, make people a bit more aware of their surroundings and their choices, think outside the box and have fun. The community event was successful, as curious people came and answered our questions, in the most diverse ways, funny or unexpected.
It is worth mentioning the Kick-Off Meeting, hosted here in Bitola by SFERA, which represented a pre-project meeting for the “The Citizens Are United” project, funded by Europe for Citizen program by the European Commission. There were present participant country organizations from countries like Macedonia (through SFERA), Greece, Malta (who is also the applicant of the project), Cyprus, Italy, Romania, Portugal, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Ireland. I had the job there of taking notes in the 2 days of the conference and at the end do minutes of it.
My own contribution to the project was made through writing articles for the SFERA website, which represented pieces of news as the organization made local events or participated in. At the beginning of the project, the organization gave me the liberty to exercise whatever skills I considered it would be useful. I decided to contribute with writing because I wanted to improve these skills and I had some background experience with that. Therefore, I was receiving at the beginning of each week the themes of each article for that particular week. In addition to this, I contributed to the SFERA blog with articles on my experiences, here in Macedonia, so you can read them, if you are curious, there.
Overall, I consider the project to have had a really positive impact on my personal development. I have tried new things, such as experiencing organizing workshops on upcycling, as well as local events, such as Art Attack and Floorball. I managed to exercise my English once again, given the international context and the Language Exchange event, speaking skills and prove my adaptation to a new cultural context, as well as my social skills (through all the people I interacted with). The organization was supportive with all the activities I did and we managed to have a good and efficient communication. The only thing I would improve on the project are the number of hours spent in the upcycling project. In my opinion, it would be more fun and it would have an even bigger impact if the workshops would be more often than once a week, for just an hour. That way, children would understand better the importance of sustainability and protection of environment, through the upcycling activities.
Among all the project activities, my free time was filled with many social activities with SFERA and various local and international volunteers, experiencing local cuisine and the Christian Orthodox holidays in January, such as Christmas party and dinner, Vasilica or Vodici. Also, I experienced the coffee and people watching culture, unique in Bitola, through its famous Shirok Sokak coffee places and the lively pubs (Kamarite, Porta Jazz, Bourbon Pub, etc). In terms of traveling, I went to the beautiful Ohrid, Skopje, as well as I took my time around Bitola, for Pelister National Park, the ancient city of Heracles, the Auto and Etno Museum or the National Museum of Bitola or the Old Bazaar. Because the EVS house was downtown, right next to the famous main street, it was very easy to get around and explore the city. The local food is very delicious and you have a wide variety of choices. Or you can also check out for fresh food in the market in the back of the Old Bazaar which has pretty much everything you need. The only thing that bothered me, from an animal lovers’ point of view, were the stray, but harmless dogs that you stumble across often in Bitola (and not only), unfortunately.
This EVS project taught be about cultural awareness, by getting insight on language and culture of Macedonia and by meeting international volunteers, experience working in an NGO outside the EU and learn more about youth work and local initiatives with impact over the local community. The project helped me strengthen my self-confidence and personal autonomy, by moving to Macedonia for 2 months. The challenges I had to overcome during this time, personal and professional, made me realize about the existence of numerous possibilities and opportunities for my life which previously never thought they were possible. I would recommend EVS projects to all young people that want to invest in their personal and professional development and I hope that SFERA will continue to successfully host volunteers in the coming period.