Irina Nikulina is a youth worker based in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia. She works in a youth organisation SFERA Movement helping hundreds of young people to find their way to international volunteering – often perceived as a life-changing experience.
How did you find volunteering for yourself?
I found it by accident. My groupmate was filling out a visa application form, I saw it and asked why she was going to Poland. It seemed weird for me to go there for a holiday. She told me she’s going for international volunteering project, I googled more, got in touch with an organization in my city and for the first time I went to a camp not far away from my home. It was a camp for disabled children. We were 8 volunteers from different countries. I was working in the horse stable at hippotherapy sessions. I was absolutely thrilled after this experience. My main motivation was to practice English and I realized only after how much more beneficial it is.
It’s important for me because this is the moment when I became self-confident. Before these projects I was quite introvert, didn’t have many friends, it was hard for me to socialize. Somehow these projects gave me inner power! I think that volunteering should be inalienable part of life. International volunteering can be done on holidays for short period of time or can be regular in your hometown – giving your local community what you can.
What does SFERA Movement do?
We’re a youth organization dealing with international volunteering projects and non-formal education, as well as with intercultural communication in general. Our job is to send volunteers from Russia abroad and host foreign volunteers inRussia. Everyone can participate in our activities, but due to this youth international specifics, a majority of people are young people speaking at least basic English. However, we have elder volunteers as well.
My tasks are sending volunteers for long-term projects abroad as well as spreading information in Russia among young people and NGOs about Erasmus+ Youth and European Solidarity Corps programmes. I help volunteers find their project and prepare them for their adventure. More about us can be found at dobrovolets.ru/en.
What are the options for a young person to volunteer abroad?
There are more, but I will talk about what I work with and participated in: workcamps and ESC projects. Anyone of any age can go to 2–3 weeks workcamp abroad. It’s possible to do it almost in any country of the world throughout the whole year. You can take care of little turtles in Mexico, renovate a castle in France or prepare music festival in Belgium – there are hundreds of options to any taste. It’s also easy to get there. It’s open for everyone and no specific skills are needed. You just need to find an organization in your country which would send you, because these projects are based on the partnership among organizations. Go to the web-page of Alliance of European Voluntary Service organizations or Service Civil International and find your country. The second type is ESC project (more known and famous as EVS) – grant programme of EU which allows young people from 18 to 30 years old volunteer abroad for a longer period of time (up to 12 months) with all costs covered. A volunteer works 30-38 hours a week for some NGO and gets an unforgettable experience of living abroad, learns a new language, broadens horizons.
Nothing is needed for volunteering abroad apart from basic English and huge motivation! Only people who are truly motivated to go – actually go. Otherwise, nobody brings it on a plate for them. Getting into workcamp is much easier, and for ESC one needs to go through sometimes hard selection process and interviews. However, it pays off in full – the programme is truly unique!
How many young people have you prepared for such projects? Who are they? What are they looking for?
Over 400. They are people from all over Russia who are united by one idea of self-development and giving to theothers through international volunteering project. Of course, they are all very different – some brave, some shy; some talkative, some quiet; some speak several languages and some only basic English to survive on but the common thing is the desire to be better themselves and make the world around just a little better. Most popular destinations for Russians are Germany, France, Italy and Spain but we’re recently discovering together with them more and more countries and they realize that Europe isn’t just Germany or Spain, it’s much more versatile. Most popular type of work is children and youth and office work in some NGO with projects. People go for many reasons – some of them run away from their current problems at home, some of them are tired of their job which they chose under pressure of their parents and want to try themselves in something new, some simply want to get this unique experience because they know it’s very beneficial from what other people are saying.
How do you prepare them?
For me it’s very important to show volunteers at preparation stage that they need to learn to think critically and independently – once you’re alone in another country, there are so many challenges coming at you that you need to have this skill. One thing they absolutely need to know and I always say that – they need to have everything in their hands because their project’s success depends fully on them. Unfortunately, I saw people expecting everyone (coordinators, mentors, tutors) to give everything to them and in the end, they didn’t integrate into the local community, didn’t get inspired, didn’t get any skills out of the opportunity. They should always remember to take responsibility and do, do, do – not stay at home, but go out, explore,meet people, go to events and make connections. Ultimately, communication is the key.
What makes a successful volunteering service?
I think there’s no recipe for a successful project because each person sees it differently. I think the key is coming with an open heart and desire to explore – all the rest is coming. For me the most remarkable story is a story of a volunteer from Germany who worked in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, in a hospital for children with cancer. He organized free-time activities with them. At the end of his project, he realized that the piano in this hospital isn’t working properly but he was supposed to leave soon. Having come back home, he collected money in his hometown to give it to the hospital – and they fixed the piano. He didn’t stop at this. He created crowdfunding campaign, collected money again and in support of this campaign travelled by bike from Berlin to Moscow. He passed the money to the hospital and they could hire an art teacher for the children for a whole year. He didn’t stop at this either. Now he’s a med student and he established his own organization helping little cancer patients in Russia and Belarus.
You have also been a volunteer yourself. In 2016, you spent one year in Tallinn, Estonia working as a volunteer in a youth association EstYES. What did you do there?
I was promoting international volunteering to Russian-speaking community in Estonia, organized workshops and presentations for young people partly managed the website and social media and generally supported work of my organization with events and some regular tasks.
International volunteering is often said to be a life-changing experience. What do you think?
I agree with that. Even though sometimes people say the opposite, they just didn’t feel the effect yet, because sometimes it’s coming slowly. People who don’t volunteer abroad have a quite limited vision of the world, of the way it works – once they do it, their limits disappear, they see life in different colours. They learn to find ways to communicate and cooperate with everyone and be flexible, adapt to different conditions. I think this is an extremely useful thing in our fastly changing world. For me at least it meant everything I mentioned above and also I found my second home. Tallinn is always a place I want to come back to. I feel like the city is hugging me and it’s filled with happy memories.
What makes you happy at the end of the day?
I just want people to experience this, to become better, to explore. Every time I see people coming back from the projects, their eyes are filled with sparkle, they want to be more, to do more, to go forward – this is what makes me happy.