Towards the start of 2016, I was approached by Piotr Sadowski – Volonteurope’s Secretary General and one of my relatives – who offered me the chance to volunteer at their annual conference in Nantes later that year. It was an invaluable opportunity which would allow me to mix with influential young people who share the same views as myself; learn more about the topics which affect my generation and even practice my French. Undoubtedly I was excited and eager to take part but at the same time I was quite reserved and nervous with it being one of my first times abroad without my parents.
As a student with a primary focus on mathematics, I was somewhat naive when it came to some of the heavier topics of the conference, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t willing to learn. I have always been keen to engage with my local community and stay connected to the wider world in terms of social justice and citizenship; attending this conference was the perfect step into broadening my horizons and I am very grateful for the opportunity to do so.
So, fast-forward to October when I was set to take the Eurostar to Paris – another first for me – with a further train from Paris to Nantes. During the journey I was kept busy with preparations for the conference, and was able to learn more about what Volonteurope did as an organisation with the help of Laura and Rosalind who were both travelling with me as well as Piotr, so the long day of travelling didn’t seem too bad.
The following days were spent meeting with the other volunteers from La Ligue de l’enseignement FAL 44 and helping them prepare for the event; it was a great opportunity to speak the language and likewise for them to practice their English (which was a lot better than my French). Already I felt as though I had gained a lot of confidence and it was really nice to be able to talk to the volunteers about matters that meant something to us as young people, and to find differences and similarities between our cultures.
Between helping out, I was able to explore the local area – which was stunning – being so close to the Château des ducs de Bretagne and the city centre allowed me to easily discover local specialities. For example on the first night, we tried some crêpe galettes: a Nantes delicacy which proved to be very nice.
Before I knew it Thursday had arrived, the official start to the conference, and there was an excited buzz flowing through the hostel where all of the young people and some volunteers were staying for the duration of the event. Right from the start, it was clear that the focus this year was on young people, and so there were many passionate Europeans keen to share their experiences and charities altogether in one room – it really was a very inspiring environment to be in. I took part in a workshop led by a young person from Génération Cobayes which highlighted the links between health and the type of environment in which you surround yourself. I learned how you can take better care of your health by making more organic product choices from clothes to cosmetics, but one of the most encouraging aspects was the emphasis it had on young people and the way in which they catered to their youth audience by connecting with them through web-series and social media.
On the last day, the first draft of Volonteurope’s report was launched and I had the opportunity as part of the conference to attend the presentation and the Q&A afterwards – both which were very eye-opening. I was able to witness a condensed version of the amazing work the organisation had been doing for the past year and again, it was very inspiring to be able to share a fresh mindset towards youth involvement. In particular I enjoyed seeing the live contributions from Elly Schlein, MEP, whose stance on the report emphasised how much of an importance the opinions and values of young people are with respect to shaping our future – and I couldn’t have agreed more. The panel broke down issues raised about the report such as the importance of acting on our beliefs whilst also addressing relevant topics in a way that was easy to understand.
After the closing remarks, I couldn’t believe how fast the time had gone but in those few days I had absorbed lots of new information, met some amazing participants and facilitators from all over Europe who have given me some invaluable life lessons. I went into the conference with very little experience, a relatively quiet persona and a small passion for the voices of youth to be heard; I’m coming away with so much more.
As I sat on the plane home that evening I was able to fully appreciate and reflect on my experiences. Not only had I been able to develop my communication skills and confidence by talking to a vast array of influential people from a multitude of backgrounds, but was also able to build upon myself as a person. Being in such an environment allowed me to hone down on my own personal beliefs and what I felt held an importance to me; the report and the people who surrounded me enforced the notion that my voice deserves to be heard just as much as anyone else’s and I became even more passionate about issues that face young Europeans. Most importantly, I realised how important the role of young people is to Europe and our society.
Emily Denmade, Volonteurope volunteer