I am now an EVS volunteer in Vienna and the main volunteering activity in my project is working in the office. However, thanks to my host institution Grenzenlos, I had the chance to observe and learn about a different type of volunteering activity; labor camps. I had never heard of these camps until I started my EVS project, so I went to “Grenzenlos’s Augarten” and “Let’s Act” labor camps as an observer to find out what activities were taking place.
Labor camps are international and group volunteering activities that last around 2-3 weeks to help the community. Most of the activities include physical activities such as taking care of the garden, painting the walls, preparing and staging plays. I was worried that people with disabilities such as me wouldn’t be able to participate in these activities, but people with disabilities can also take part because they are given activities that everyone can do. The main activities at the Augarten camp were gardening (taking care of flowers) and painting some walls in the park. I really liked the fact that volunteers were able to contribute to society and do business for the benefit of the public. I was very motivated to see them working hard and I was thrilled with the happiness of seeing a labor camp for the first time.
Another thing that made me happy was the sincerity and friendliness of the volunteers in the camp. Thanks to them, I felt like I belonged there, and I felt that labor camps were a great opportunity to make friends from all over the world. Camping activities start at 9 am on weekdays and end at 3 pm including lunch. Afterwards, volunteers went to their accommodation to relax, prepare dinner and travel around Vienna in their free time. I remember being very surprised when I went to see where they were staying because it was a large room resembling a gym and I saw a lot of suitcases around. Then they told me that this place was a team apartment, that camp volunteers slept on the floor with their sleeping bags and mats. Then I went on a trip to Prater, an amusement park in Vienna, and together we went to various places in the amusement park. The place where I thought the children sat and listened to music suddenly turned into an octopus-like machine that turned very fast in every direction. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize it until I got in it and started to turn around, and I thought I’d crash on my head and die. This experience has taught me that I should not judge anything by its appearance.
The second labor camp I went to was “Let’s Act”. This time I was involved in the camp activities with the permission of Grenzenlos and the theater pedagogue, as I was very interested in the theater and wanted to help volunteers as much as I could. Like Augarten, this camp also lasted from 9 am to 3 pm, including lunch on weekdays. Most of the time we practiced in a church room. In the morning we started with body movements that we call “energizer” and continued with various voice and role-playing exercises.
Taking part in a theatrical play means doing a lot of physical activities such as stretching our body and freezing on stage. Although I normally use a cane, I had problems with balance during practices and I used a wheelchair during the camp to keep my balance, prevent myself from falling and perform my roles. Learning to use a wheelchair was very difficult for me because I was not used to it. I often had to ask my assistants and everyone in the camp for help. I felt terrible and very angry that I didn’t have the physical strength to do the activities on my own. But this also gave me a new perspective. I gained more awareness about the accessibility of my physical environment, my personal space, things that I had but did not care about. We then discussed the main theme of our play and set it as “boundaries” because it is a broad concept that can gain different meanings depending on the context and area in which it is used. Country boundaries, personal boundaries, the boundaries of our minds… When we determined the theme, we were divided into groups according to the activities we want to do.
I was very eager to improve myself and contribute to the theater camp, so I took part in more than one group, such as writers, singers and actors. First, I helped part of the script writing, then I learned to sing the songs of the group of singers, and I also practiced the roles I was going to play. Since the characters they wanted me to play were completely opposite to my personality (a very nationalist person and a model who fell in love and went on an appointment), I didn’t really identify with them. But I believe it is a worthwhile experience to act different character roles. Therefore, I would like to continue taking part in such activities if I have the opportunity.
We were both excited and stressed at the day of our final show. There were situations in which each of us was concerned. Mine was my speed because I feared that I’d ruin the show if I wasn’t fast enough. Our stage was a huge room, and since we played each scene in a separate section of the room, it was important to move quickly. But everything went much better than I expected because we were a team, and we supported and helped each other whenever we needed it. I’m not sure if I was good enough, but we’ve all worked hard for our play. I am proud to say that we have performed a wonderful performance that comes from our hearts which the audience admired.
The most important thought I had in the process of our performance was that art could bring everyone together and reach our hearts. Our thoughts and feelings reached our audience. I still don’t know what to do after my project is over, but I will be very happy to be part of such activities and inspire many people.
Taking part in a lot of activities meant that my responsibilities increased as well, and there were times when I felt tired, stressed, but the strongest feeling I felt throughout the camp was happiness. I felt happy and grateful that I could be a part of this camp and meet wonderful volunteers from all over the world. Spending time with everyone made me feel like a member of a huge family that reaches all over the world. Wherever we were, it reminded me that our hearts would be together.
Taking part in labor camps can change your life, I’m sure it will. In the camps you can do public works, make friends, have lots of fun and discover activities you like to do, just like I did. These experiences enabled me to improve and greatly reduced my doubts about my future goals. I hope more people volunteer by attending these camps and take a step towards discovering and doing their favorite activities.
Esin Merdan – AGH-95 Avusturya