Vicky Ridley - General Journalism Projects in Romania
Volunteering: a way of life
It could be said that I’m a fairly seasoned volunteer. Over the years I’ve undertaken all manner of roles, from leading Girl Guides, to scrub clearance on Bodmin Moor in deep snow, to coaching sport on hot summer days. My day-to-day job involves managing volunteers and encouraging people to engage and take positive action in their local communities. I’m also no stranger to Projects Abroad having volunteered in Romania, India and Cambodia. So why would I decide to return to Romania, seven years after my initial visit, to volunteer during my two-week holiday from work? My colleagues described it as madness.
Volunteering during your holiday offers a unique opportunity to give something back during your time off, to develop or learn new skills and to experience a different side to a country that isn’t possible when you move from place-to-place for a fortnight, or just sit back and relax on your two-week break. But volunteering during your holiday (or gap year, or career break) isn’t all about hard work. Projects Abroad ensures that there is an active social-side to volunteering. You are guaranteed to meet like-minded people from around the world and Projects Abroad staff will always ensure that there’s plenty going on in the evenings and the weekends are yours: free to roam and explore your temporary home country.
Living with a host family
In most destinations, Romania included, volunteers stay with host families: an ideal way to get-to-know the locals, feel part of the community and to have a ‘home from home’. Your host family will ‘mother’ you and feed you delicious home-cooked food, but don’t worry they are accustomed to having volunteers to stay and you’ll have the freedom to come and go when you please, and they can cater for your dietary requirements. Just let them know if you’re going away for the weekend or won’t be in for your meals! Language need not be a problem either. It’s fun to pick up words of the local lingo, to impress your friends on your return home, if nothing else, but Projects Abroad will always make sure that someone in the household speaks some English and you’ll be amazed at how quickly you learn the international art of ‘point, mime and guess!’
With a bit of insider knowledge from my previous stay in Brasov, I’d requested to live with a family close to the historic and beautiful city-centre. My wish was granted and after being met at Bucharest airport and transported to Brasov along much faster and smoother roads than I remembered from my previous trip, I arrived at my temporary family home. Shown to a large room and introduced to my room-mates (not at all uncommon, most host families will take two or more volunteers at a time), it was time for food. Rodica, my ‘Mum’ laid the table: soup, fried pork, chips and salad – I’d forgotten just how much Romanians enjoy feeding you, there was no shortage!
Following dinner there was barely time to unpack before heading out to meet other volunteers at one of their weekly social events in a traditional Romanian bar and restaurant in the centre of town. There’s always much excitement when new volunteers arrive: where are they from, what placement are they doing and how long are they here for? During the summer months, which my visit was this time around, many of my fellow volunteers were university students taking a break from their studies or completing placements as part of their degree programmes.
They came from all over the world, the USA, Canada, Australia, Denmark, Finland, France, Switzerland and Belgium – not unusual in the slightest. Most were staying for a month, some two or three months, so jealously crept in knowing that my stay was somewhat limited in comparison. Still, I had a headstart, knowing my way around the city and the surrounding area. I’d visited a lot of the local sights seven years ago and knew in advance where I wanted to return to and what I wanted to see come the weekends.
In true Projects Abroad style I was met at my home the next day by a member of staff and introduced to two other new volunteers who had arrived over the weekend. We set off on a walking tour of Brasov to learn where things were, how to get around, change money, buy local SIM cards and generally ask questions to ensure that we ready for life in a foreign land. For me it was a chance to test my memory and to play ‘spot the difference’ and notice the changes that had taken place in my absence.
Romania: a changing nation
Romania has changed and developed since my previous visit. I had expected it to: in 2004 the country was vying to gain accession to the European Union, a process completed in 2007. For the first 12-months it seemed the country went through a boom, with heavy investment in infrastructure. Sadly, this rapid growth was short-lived as the global economic down-turn hit and many Romanians during my stay spoke of the poor state of the economy, the cost of living, the lack of jobs and the difficulty in making ends meet. Increasing numbers of younger Romanians have made the most of EU membership, as working or studying abroad has become an increasingly popular option.
Despite the economic challenges positive changes were visible to see. More shops, improved transport systems, less visible signs of poverty, fewer street children and stray dogs. On many occasions during my stay, I took advantage of sitting in one of the many bars lining the streets of the historic centre to enjoy a drink and soak up the atmosphere; café culture has arrived (this was the summer, Brasov is prone to heavy snow come the winter months!)
On the outskirts of Brasov by the railway station a large shopping centre now stands on what I remember to be derelict land. I didn’t venture in as my aim wasn’t to shop while in Romania, but the H&M logo adorning the outside of the building gave a glimpse of what I was likely to have found had I ventured in.
Back to the induction tour: having been treated for a traditional Romanian lunch of sarmale (cabbage rolls stuffed with minced meat) it was time to dive in at the deep-end with my volunteer project. As I’d previously done, I’d chosen to spend two-weeks participating in the Journalism placement. Internship based projects are an ideal way to develop your skills or try something new. I enjoy writing but I’m not a journalist or writer by trade. With most Projects Abroad placements this doesn’t matter, it’s all about getting involved and having a go.
My journalism placement
First stop on my placement was the summer-school Journalism club. Meeting other volunteers at the Projects Abroad office, we set-off to catch the bus to Prejmer, a small town just outside of Brasov. In the town centre at the local community centre groups of young people aged nine to fourteen were enjoying a summer holiday club. As part of this, Projects Abroad journalism volunteers were running weekly sessions, helping the children create a newsletter to document their activities during the holidays. We chatted to the young people, gathering their ideas for the magazine, debated the title and sections within the newsletter and sent the budding reporters of to find stories during the week ready for our return the following Monday.
The next day, it was down to work at Satul magazine, the main component of the Journalism placement in Romania. This is a small magazine established by an enterprising woman named Ana Negru, who is passionate about preserving traditional rural Romanian life. In a country that is marked by such contrasts (horse and carts still plough the fields, but flashy cars race down the roads) and a nation that is rapidly modernising, it is easy for century old traditions and livelihoods to become lost: generations of knowledge gone forever. Through Satul, literally translated as ‘The Village’ Ana is doing her bit to capture the importance of rural traditions through publishing a bi-lingual magazine filled with inspiring photography and fascinating articles.
This isn’t a news-based journalism placement; imagine more feature writing, investigative and observational journalism. Ana will give you plenty of ideas for stories, but it helps if you come with your own thoughts and areas of interest. For me, I knew that I had a passion for food, farming and rural livelihoods. Other volunteers may prefer to follow historical or political based stories. Have a think and be ready to discuss the possibilities with Ana. She’s there to help!
Armed with ideas and leads for stories, it’s usual to spend a day or two in the small offices of Satul researching and exploring your ideas further. After this, Ana will arrange interviews and visits to villages (both close-by and much further afield across Romania) to gather your much need information. You’ll be accompanied on these visits so that there are no language barriers. Once back, you’ll spend a few days writing up your article before moving on to the next story and idea. While based at the office in Brasov, volunteers typically spend around 4-hours a day working, leaving plenty of time for recreational activities or during term-time getting involved in running after-school journalism clubs and the Voices of the World project.
A journalism placement offers you an ideal opportunity to find out more about the local culture, the country and its people. Of course, it is satisfying and rewarding to see your article in print and if this is a career you wish to pursue, having published work will be of great benefit. Through the outreach work that it now a part of this Projects Abroad placement there is an opportunity to support local communities and put into practice some of the skills you’ve learnt or share your professional experience. Two-weeks isn’t long though, and I found it challenging to get much written while I was in Romania! Still, a fantastic experience and one that I would highly recommend, but a month or more will be much more productive if you can afford the time.
Just do it!
Heading back to Bucharest and boarding my flight home, I felt fulfilled: a sense of achievement and my mind stimulated with all the sights I’d seen during my two week trip. Interviews with peasants; a trip to a former European Capital of Culture; delicious meals; plenty of relaxation; an eye-opening visit to a hospital for mentally ill adults; a return trip to a Children’s Home that I’d helped to renovate seven years ago; new found friends, both volunteers and locals; and my name in print. Not bad for a two-week ‘holiday’! Volunteering and Romania was all I had expected it to be and more – I’ll certainly be back again!