“My experience in Solidarity Actions for Kids project” – by Giulia Fani

Hello everyone, I am Giulia from Italy and I would like to tell you about my experience in Romania during my six months in Bucharest for the European Solidarity Corps program.

When I chose to take part and this program, I admit, I did not do so for the noblest reasons. I had just dropped out of school after starting a master’s degree program that did not suit me, I had found a side job that, however, did not meet my expectations and mainly I just wanted to get out of my hometown as soon as possible and for as long as possible.

The European Solidarity Corps is a European Union program, which provides opportunities to young people who want to bring positive change to communities across Europe and beyond. It allows young people to develop themselves and gain valuable competencies through an enriching experience abroad or in their home country while promoting the value of solidarity, citizenship, and social cohesion.

I had already taken part in European volunteer work but only for a couple of months, spending six months away from home seemed like a big leap of faith. Especially because I was going to be away from home for a long time I wanted to opt for a big city, a city that was full of life, stimulation, things to do, and places to visit. And there is nothing better than a European capital! Bucharest proved to be a good choice though sometimes chaotic, dispersive, and even too hectic. I was able to build a new routine for myself in this city despite living in a neighborhood that was not exactly central since it offered all the services I needed; I had the gym a couple of bus stops from home, my favorite supermarket about ten minutes away, and a little further away a large park where I could take walks, relax or go watch the sunset. Living in a capital city with a well-connected train station to the rest of the country and a large airport has also allowed me to travel and learn about many new places!

However, do not think that taking part in volunteering is like taking a vacation, sure we have time to carve out time for ourselves and devote ourselves to our hobbies, but it takes commitment perseverance, and dedication toward activities for the beneficiaries. 

The volunteer work I took part in is called Solidarity Actions For Kids and it is a project designed by A.C.T.O.R. whose mission is to empower its beneficiaries (children, young people, and adults) using art tools to discover new ways of self-expression, which can strengthen their self-confidence, help them find their rightful place in the community and develop in harmony with themselves and with the society. In this project, my main tasks were the creation of intercultural workshops in the field of non-formal education for children in schools (primary education) and kindergartens, clinic animation for children and youngsters in hospitals and social centers,  and developing fundraisers for disadvantaged children and youngsters in Romania like the Easter campaign “De Florii, flori pentru copii”. The purpose of this campaign is to raise funds by selling roses from napkins, in order to prepare the gifts that will reach both the four children’s hospitals in Bucharest as well as a social inclusion center in a county outside the capital.

We received different kinds of training on socio-cultural animation and theater in relation to the activities we would later do i.e. workshops in schools, hospitals, kindergartens, refugee centers, and orphanages. Some of the workshops I participated in were on balloon twisting, origami, puppet shows and shadow theater. Taking part in this volunteer work also allowed us to develop new skills such as interacting with children with autism; how to approach children with disabilities; how to design and deliver a non-formal lesson; practice creative writing and theater, dance and animation performances.

Most of the facilities we worked in were located within the neighborhoods of Bucharest, but we also had the opportunity to get to know smaller and more rural realities several hours’ drive from the capital, the hours spent traveling to reach them turned out to be great for teambuilding, among other things. So I would like to tell you a little about those facilities that left a mark on my heart and memories.

One of these is the hospital of Marie Skłodowska-Curie, my colleagues and I used to go there once a week for around 30 minutes during which we tried to put a smile on the children’s faces. We usually brought them little gifts or made animals of their choice out of twisting balloons in front of their eyes while trying to cheer them up. Even though the time we spent there wasn’t much, it was tough and saddening, since most of the kids we visited couldn’t stand up, had recent signs of surgery, or were connected to the machinery needed for their care. Yet I felt like our presence really made a difference for them.

Twice a week, every Tuesday and every Thursday, we would go to volunteer in the courtyard of a children’s hospital, the Department of Pediatric Pneumology, on Lacul Bucura Street, in Sector 5. There were many young children with respiratory problems admitted to that hospital who came from families with social and economic difficulties, and it was always a joy for them when we brought gifts and toys with us. With some of them it was more difficult to relate because they could be temperamental and a bit bossy, despite their tender age. But we always tried to create the right atmosphere for each child to have fun. The activities we offered were always dynamic and very energetic because, despite their medical conditions, the children were very enthusiastic and always wanted to have fun so it was very rewarding for us to play and interact with them.

We also worked with children from La Recuperare department “centrul medical clinic de recover neuropsihomotorie copii.” This clinical center receives young patients who come from foster families. The center provides remedial medical services to children aged 0-18 years with neuropsychomotor problems. Each week we offered two afternoons of activities, setting up a table in the center of the main room and bringing some benches closer together, being careful to leave enough space for children in wheelchairs to approach. Because the children had motor difficulties, we could not offer them games that involved movement, but we had a wide selection of paper crafts to choose from and offer. The materials that could never be lacking during our activities at La Recuperare were origami paper, pencils and markers, glue and scissors, and most importantly, colorful stencils! Children would gather around the table, some alone, others accompanied by parents or even doctors. If the adults had time, they would also sit with us and participate in the activities!  It is a great way for everyone to rediscover their childlike side!

The two centers where I definitely received the most affection and where the children stole my heart were the two kindergartens Neghinita, centru comunitar sfantul vasile, and Harap Alb, Centrul de zi și recuperare copil cu dizabilități. We always went out to play in the garden or playground, playing with them on the swings, throwing Frisbees, drawing with chalk, riding bikes. making soap bubbles… and these are just some of the things we and the children enjoyed doing. We always left the center with smiles on our faces from all the joy we experienced, and it was really touching to say goodbye to everyone on my last day. At first the children were shy, but with time they began to be more affectionate with us, recognizing us and running to us every time we arrived welcoming us with a hug, lots of kisses and a big smile on their faces.

Given the peculiar nature of the times we are living in, another facility we went to was the Ukrainian refugee center that housed children of all ages along with their mothers. The thing that struck us most within this community was how the children managed to maintain positivity even in such a difficult situation. The children were always eagerly waiting for us and were happy to spend time with us, they loved to be active and creative at the same time. We could easily come up with different ball games and then relax with crafts after doing some sports. I was relieved to learn that by the end of my project most of the host families had had the opportunity to move into a real apartment, I learned that the mothers had found job opportunities and their children had gone on to school.

I really encourage you to participate in a volunteer experience like this. The European Union has so many opportunities to offer and has great tools that allow people to connect and be a part of something so important and fulfilling! These programs are incredible for our professional growth but more importantly for our personal growth! I came home and feel like a different person, I learned a lot about myself, I helped others, they helped me, it is a two-way experience that will change your life and the lives of those you help.

This project helped me learn more about and respect the diversity of others and their needs, and improved my attitude of cooperation, assertiveness, and integrity. I realized that volunteering can be rewarding and challenging, but it can become very overwhelming when dealing with children with special needs. While volunteering with children is usually associated with fun and laughter, children with special needs require a little extra love, patience and care. These children tend to be more vulnerable and require more attention, empathy and understanding. I have learned to adapt easily to situations, now possess better communication skills and have developed a soft spot for children. My imagination, creativity have also improved. I have developed the ability to remain calm in stressful situations and have a more open approach and less prejudice. Children with special needs usually face difficulties in many aspects, including physical, emotional, behavioral and have learning difficulties. I also got to know more fragile realities, within the capital’s borders but also in its surroundings, this project made me more aware of my own cultural context, sometimes taken for granted and considered the standard, and the cultural context of others. By participating in the activities of a particular center, I was able to experience how good communication with people with autism is crucial. Effective support can only depend on empathy and understanding the world from the perspective of the person with autism. I was also able to see how children from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to experience suffering from poor health and how this also leads to worse social and emotional outcomes. I was able to gain a better understanding of how inequalities are rooted in the poorer environments that socially and economically disadvantaged children face at home, in school, and in the community, and because the different areas of children’s well-being and the different aspects of their lives are often interconnected, these children need consistent support in all areas if they are to see real changes in their life experiences and outcomes.

Volunteering has given me the opportunity to explore my interests in different work environments without having the same rigor of employment, come to think of it so far I have worked more as a volunteer than for money. I am trying to become the best possible version of myself, and having had the time and space to discover my qualities but also make mistakes has been very valuable for my personal development. Even with all the difficulties, uncertainties, and moments of conflict or discouragement that I admit there were within the project, I would choose to do it a hundred times over! And I wish I could come back someday in the future…so Romania, thank you for everything!

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