Nature of EVS

“EVS” – European Voluntary Service – is a programme that allows young people from all over Europe (and in smaller part, from all over the world) to go abroad for a period up to 12 months, and be involved in a project of social interest. If you are more interested on its details, how to apply, how to select the project, when & where to start — there are many useful and very detailed websites like this one that can help you to have a first impression. We cannot cover it in this post.

Because… here I am telling the story of Nature of EVS, the latest experiential training course in which I have been involved, and that took place in Olomouc (Czech Republic) from the 24th to 31st of July, 2015. It was funded mainly through the European programme Erasmus+ (all praise!) and organised by Act in Ostrava, a small informal organisation based in Czech Republic and active in non formal education.

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A beautiful view of the centre, from the back side. The eco-passive house has amazing capacities of saving energy in all seasons, and a very low environmental impact.

First, the place. And what a place! We were staying in the ecologic training centre of Slunakov, very close to Olomouc, in Moravia. I have seen many wonderful training centres in the Czech Republic, most of which are based in a natural area, or have a special connection to the place somehow. Slunakov really stands apart: it presents a unique combination of art, philosophy and environmental sciences that really gives a strong added value to any activity hosted there. I was already there last year for The Yellow Brick Road, and this time I have been struck even more by its magic. As most of our group, I can say.

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A ship in a meadow? This can also be encountered in Slunakov. And wait until you see what is inside!

And the team! Really an all-star team. Bára Blahova, also project coordinator and responsible of Active in Ostrava; Honza Látal, with his guru approach to arts & natural philosophy; Helena Kosková, and her mastery of Council and Storytelling. If there was one word to define the team, well, it would probably be: Czech.

But besides this, I can really call them good friends, and true professionals with a total dedication to their job. It’s a great privilege to work in such a company, that pushes me always to do things a little better than before.

So what was  the concept of the course? From the beginning, we wanted to propose a learning experience based on nature, self development and spirituality to all people who are involved with EVS, in a broad sense. Trainers, project coordinators, mentors, national agency staff members… Then over the time the idea started to change, because we realised we were attracting so many applications from ex volunteers who wanted to look for a deeper meaning to their experience. Obviously we thought “why not?” and we took the change on board with us. I still think it’s kind of a pity that we couldn’t connect so much with our original target group, but true to the Open Space philosophy: “Whoever comes, are the right people”. So instead of fighting the twist from our original idea, we decided to embrace it.

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One of the (many) moments of fun & relax together.

What happened, then. The group was a very diverse mix of people (I know I probably write it in every single post, but this time it was really diverse!), ranging from project coordinators with a vast experience, to people who just finished their Voluntary Service and wanted to frame it in a wider meaning, to students interested in EVS in the first place and just wanted to know more about it.

We brought the group together (the first day was a mess, with only a bunch of participants being there on time, and everybody else arriving until late at night), and it was time to start!

Initially we had an idea in mind: to offer a “spa week” (yes, in the sense of wellness and relax, not the city in Belgium which, anyway, really has thermal waters). We wanted to create a space to try very different experiences, to enjoy, relax and be nourished. Phisically, mentally, maybe even spiritually. This concept has stayed with us, and although I cannot say that for me it has been a relaxing week (I have a very different idea of “relax“), in the end I think it quite describes the overall feeling that we had, together with the group. Of course, the natural surrounding and the summer feeling helped a lot. But then again: it’s the Nature of EVS!

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“The Chapel”, I believe this was called. Certainly a place of inspiration, to reflect on astrology, nature, elements and… Above.

The programme included many different activities, in a very wide mix. We went from true classics of EVS on-arrival training (the training that volunteers receive upon arrival in their new countries), like case-studies to reflect on crisis and opportunities during a project,

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EVS Forum Theatre, to discuss real life crisis. “You must understand: there are MY interests, and there are YOUR interests. And they are not the same”.

to one of our favourite concepts, “Service and Care”: in other words, work groups that every day take care of a specific aspect of living together, helping and assisting wherever needed. From kitchen duty to clearing the working spaces, to “morning news” with the media group, to gardening.

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Of course being Czech Republic, you must expect rain every week, even in summer. But this didn’t stop people from having (apparently) fun!

In a couple of occasions we had parallel sessions, with different activities taking place at the same time, but aimed at different targets or covering various topics. So, for example in the “What is EVS” session, we proposed three levels (beginners, intermediate and veterans) to make sure everybody in the group could find something that suited their interests.

Of course, we wanted to involve summer outdoor games. Or so people thought. We launched a crazy competition that we named “The Silver Snake Run” (cool name, uh? Totally made up at the last moment) and basically consisted in forcing people to run like crazy for almost an hour under the burning sun  an exercise to test communication, leadership and trust in the group. It was really an experience that went beyond our expectations!

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Ready: GO! No wait a second guys, are you really taking it so seriously?

In the sense that we didn’t expect people to play it! We wanted to design a game that was NOT supposed to run until the end, because it represented a stupid and excessive challenge to the group. On top of that, we were moving the finish line further and further, pretending nothing happened.

We were provoking the group to trigger a reaction. Which in the end has been there, but really not how we expected. We were completely surprised by the competitive nature of the group, and by the strenght of their motivation to finish the job – as well as by their very strong group spirit: more than one person commented, in the end: “If it wasn’t for my team mates, I wouldn’t have made it until the end”.

Another comment was: “It was tough, but I am happy I finished it“. Just like EVS, then. (Ok, just sometimes). Anyway we realised that after all we were on the right track.

The session turned out to be very interesting also because it made us reflect on how people trust the leaders just because they occupy a power position. And what if they are wrong? Or just stupid? What if they take a very bad decision? If they even break the rules just in front of us? How far are we willing to forgive, or to delegate power to those in charge? Followed a very interesting discussion (also, people were too exhausted to do anything else than talk after all that running).

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The crazy “Silver Snake Run”, seen from above. The sun was hot that day. Seriously.

Very interesting questions, strongly related to EVS but also to our common life in society. I strongly believe that the session brought the group together (and having a common enemy, the training team, certainly helped) but in the end nobody got hurt, and we managed to process all the emotions and the strong learning experience. Although it wasn’t really necessary… Well done guys!

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We even had winners! I thought it would be impossible. Maybe the MONETARY REWARD (money collected from all other participants) was a deciding motivation factor?

Of course, the place being what it was and us being… well, us – the programme included also many strong experiential sessions, such as a long walk into the natural area surrounding the place (it was “The EVS walk“, meant to inspire reflections on all stages of the long adventure of the European Voluntary Service),

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Bára is leading the way during “The EVS Walk”. There is light at the end of the tunnel. But it’s full of mosquitoes.

and a really magic bonfire night, where we all gathered to share stories about our experiences with EVS.

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STORYTELLING BONFIRE! Need I say more?

As it happens, some turned out to be real horror stories (such as when an old lady comes and takes all the furniture from your flat, because the hosting organisation doesn’t pay the rent); some others were about love and life (and a pregnant mama cat); many included travel (by train in the middle of the night, by plane or even by boat). Some were about gaining something, some about losing. And it is all good, because it all turned out to be part of the “Nature of EVS”. 

The evening really blessed us with a perfect weather and the sky was just something incredible. Fantastic atmosphere for all the group!

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Perfect night for horror stories, right? Well, reading my coffee cup I was predicted that I am going to get married soon!

We (of course!) also included some story-telling exercises inspired by the Hero’s Journey mythology, as a way to connect people and their projects, and share anecdotes, contacts and compare strenghts or weaknesses in their work.

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Helena was absolutely inspired running her narrative of “Hloupy Honza” (Honza the Fool). And no, the session had nothing to do with another member of the team.

Our “Guest Star” trainer this time was Jana Stará, Wellness Coach, who introduced our group to basic theory and practice related to Wellness – not only health, but as a balance of physical, mental, social and spiritual. Jana also introduced everybody to a very useful tool, the Wellness Wheel. Thanks to it, it’s possible to have a self assessment of our own wellness state, and identify what areas need more attention. I have experienced it (twice), and I have to say that it works. Especially because it doesn’t bring any sense of guilt or inadequacy with it: we are all working towards our wellness, and nobody is flawless. Let’s focus on a few areas of improvement at the time, and enjoy the ride in the meanwhile!

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Jana put a great attention to each detail of her session with us. Thanks a lot! Very useful material indeed.

And much, much more. We worked with Dreams and subconscious with a “Dreamstar Council“.

And other outdoor activities included an innovative outlook to intercultural learning run by Honza, or: how to see things from a very different perspective.

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This session… Hey, if you want to know all the details, you have to come to the course next time.

And a very exciting session of “Open Space“, where people could contribute with their favourite topics and host a session. Our offers ranged from Yoga to Sport to Fortune Reading, and from “How to Start a Successful NGO” to “Becoming EVS Trainers” (good luck with that). I had a lot of fun presenting an introduction to Gamification in Education, with the title: “The Game of EVS”.

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Of course I also talked about Star Wars in my Open Space session. But of course!

The programme culminated with a very touching session of Council. Which helped so much to bring the group together before the conclusion of the course! Sharing stories of change, insights, revelations and – why not – a little bit of magic from the Big Out There (or In There?).

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Sitting in Council and sharing stories can often be the defining moment of a training week.

So in conclusion, how was the course?

Very different from what I expected. I didn’t know what to expect, to be honest. It was a new concept, in a new team (although composed by all long-time and trusted friends). I know one thing for sure: I was happy to get up from bed and work with the group, every day. Honestly, it doesn’t happen all the time it’s a luxury that people who work with groups can have. I came to love the family feeling, the inside jokes, the sense of excitement and discovery whenever a new challenge was posed, or a new insight shared. What a pleasure. At the end, the feeling of achievement was really strong, definite.

People shared that the week was an inspiring experience, full of eye-opening moments, space for reflection and taking decisions, nurturing as a self-development experience and at the same time rich with professional gain, network and empowerment.

Well, it was an intense journey for me, for sure. I came back home with a stronger awareness of the moment of my life I am living, right now.

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The view from the top of the “Solar Mountain” was an inspiring one: and it reminded us of Stonehenge!

Would I do it again? Most certainly. Wait… in fact, we are!

The second edition is already planned and soon we will launch the application process. Will it be the same? Impossible to say.  For sure, conditions will be different: the course will take place in Sermugnano, Italy, in November 2015. And the group will be completely different. But we can guarantee, the experience will be memorable.
Maybe you are already thinking of applying? Let us know!

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The philosopher said: “You can never step in the same river twice”. But think about your crew, before trying rafting.

Tadaaaa! Group picture! Thanks, brave travel mates of “Nature of EVS”!

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And now everybody say: “Beeeeeaver”!
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