By now hopefully all of you are home and fully rested from two days in Brussels attending our conference last week. I’m sure you will agree that it was a fantastic couple of days in Brussels, with highly informative workshops and speakers illuminating many of the issues highlighted in our recent report. The conference week started with Volonteurope’s bi-annual board meeting, followed by our AGM. These were two fruitful sessions in terms of revising our statutes, and saying farewell to Volonteurope’s Vice President André Hudepohl as he stepped down from the board owing to retirement. An important part of the AGM, then, was the election of three new Volonteurope board members (board member Ismail Ademi’s term came to an end this year and Peter Nesbit stepped down after leaving Volunteering Matters in April). We needed three new board members, and, luckily, we received three nominations! We are very happy to announce that Chantelle Gardner from Ekaya Housing Association, David Lopez from La Ligue de l’enseingement and Mirthe Biemans from Humanitas will be joining the board. We will have some more information up on the website about them very soon, and thanks to all the members who took part in the process.

 

This then led on to the evening reception, which you’ll know from the programme, opened with the film Yes, We Fuck, and was followed by food from the social enterprise #WeExist. Yes, We Fuck is a Spanish documentary film, dealing with themes around disabled people’s sexuality and sexual autonomy. It’s confronting and provocative, and certainly prompted a lot of discussion following the screening, while also setting the scene for the themes of the conference. You can find out more about it here. The screening was followed by food from the fantastic catering social enterprise, #WeExist. They were set up by a group of Syrian refugees newly arrived in Belgium, who were struggling to find work. Prior to serving dinner, Obada, one of the founders of #WeExist, addressed our participants and told them about how he started #WeExist in order to help facilitate entry into the labour market for Syrian refugees in Belgium, and to promote participation in Belgian socio-economic and cultural life. They served a fantastic mix of mostly vegetarian Syrian food, and all of us at the Secretariat were especially pleased that we were able to engage such a worthy enterprise for our opening night.

 

Tuesday morning saw the opening of the conference proper, with all of our attendees meeting early at the European Economic and Social Committee in the European Quarter of Brussels. We had some fantastic opening speeches, with Pavel Trantina, Group III, SOC Section President of the European Economic and Social Committee, our President Oonagh Aitken and also Julie Ward, Labour MEP for the North West of England speaking about rights for young people, the value of volunteering, and their hopes for the conference.

 

Then it was time for workshops! We had four workshops happening in the morning, and four in the afternoon, and I was able to attend Yeesi’s session in the morning, which dealt with mental well being for young people in Finland. Yeesi was formed in 2011 to raise awareness of mental health, and of taking care of mental health for young people. Their work is peer-led, and they communicate extensively using social media, and through blogs on their website. They told us about the Hand of Wellbeing, and how they use it in their sessions with young people in schools and youth centres around Helsinki to teach their participants about the importance of balance in staying mentally healthy and happy. The workshop prompted many interesting discussions amongst the participants, and we all went away better informed about the importance of balance in our lives.

 
For the afternoon session I went to the workshop dealing with Volunteering Matters’ new SAFE project (Sexual Awareness for Everyone) which works with young women with learning disabilities on the topics of healthy relationships and sexuality. The facilitators Cara and Mandy started off by giving us some background to the project, which works with young women from age 16-35, running workshops on consent, sexual health, trust, exploitation and other topics. The topics and the content are proposed and planned in conjunction with the project’s beneficiaries – called SAFE Champions – to ensure that the workshops address the most pertinent issues. It was funded by the British Tampon Tax Fund, and the project itself was devised by its beneficiaries – the SAFE Champions – who also lead the peer to peer sessions.

 

Then it was time to reconvene in the main room present Volonteurope’s latest report – Pathways to Rights: Empowering Young Europeans. Written by Laura de Bonfils and Louise King of Volonteurope, the report touched on the same themes of the conference – access to rights and the empowerment of young Europeans. We were joined by Gabriella Civico of European Volunteer Centre (CEV), Andrea Casamenti of European Youth Forum and Dajay Brown of PRCBC, who gave their reactions. Andrea Casamenti praised the ‘rights-based’ approach of the work and its focus on youth empowerment, and Gabriella Civico touched on how young people in Europe frequently don’t have the mechanisms or knowledge to make their voices heard. As such, the report makes clear that civil society organisations must do more to help young people in Europe, Gabriella also pointed out that it’s not only the responsibility of civil society: media, business and governments must also play a part. Dajay Brown reflected on his own experience growing up in the UK and finding out he lacked citizenship, and his journey to gaining it.

 

And then it was all over! We closed the conference with a few more words from Pavel Trantina and our President Oonagh Aitken, and then it was time to exchange contact details and make plans for meeting again in the future.

 

Rosalind Duignan-Pearson