Volunteering as a way to see the world. A few memories from France.

As summertime is approaching, I’ve thought it would be a good idea to share with you a certain tip on how to visit many interesting places without spending a fortune and suffering at overcrowded touristic spots. When I was a university student I found a cheap and interesting alternative which I then used many times. The trick consists in combining volunteering with travel. But first, a warning: if your dream holiday is a lazy time spent sunbathing and sipping drinks around a swimming pool in a tropical country (which is not a bad thing of course), what I’m going to propose is probably not a good option for you. That’s because if you go for volunteering during your holiday, you obviously would have to dedicate some part of your free time to work. However, I think it’s a great idea for people who don’t mind a bit of activity during their holiday. It’s definitely a good option for those who enjoy helping other people, are curious about the world, like to practise foreign languages and visit less crowded (but definitely not less beautiful) spots. Oh, and for all those interested in upcycling and sustainable living. Is this even possible to combine so many cool things in a single trip? Yes, this is easily achievable – you only have to sign up for summer volunteering programme with an organisation called Emmaus.

What is Emmaus?

Emmaus is an international organisation supporting poor, homeless or socially excluded people. It was founded in 1949 in France where, like in many European countries after the World War II, a big part of the population was struggling with extreme poverty and the feeling of hopelessness. That’s when a French priest (l’abbé) Pierre established the first Emmaus community. It was aimed for the homeless people to live and work together and to regain their sense of purpose of life. As the time passed, more and more similar communities were founded in France, the organisation also expanded their activity globally – to other countries such as Belgium, Spain, Ireland, Italy and Poland, even to other continents: South America, Africa and Asia.

People living in Emmaus communities are called companions (in French, compagnons). The organisation admits people looking for help, for a variety of reasons: they can be homeless, long-term unemployed, lonely, elderly or handicapped, as well as migrants from countries affected by war or poverty. Everyone can seek help at Emmaus, regardless of their nationality, ethnicity or faith. There are communities aimed exlusively for men or for women only, but some of them are mixed. Every person admitted to Emmaus is assigned to a job within the community. The tasks vary according to skills, physical condition and general health of each companion. What’s interesting, the elderly companions who are no longer able to work, stay within the community and receive a pension from the organisation. The money they are paid do not come from the state budget, but from Emmaus’ own resources. This way, the elderly members of the community are not left on their own, but they remain a part of the family and can enjoy the company of other people.

Emmaus communities aim to be financially self-suffient. How do they achieve this? The core of their activity is collecting, upcycling and reselling old objects. People who want to get rid of their unwanted furniture, books, clothes or CDs, can call Emmaus and request these belongings to be collected from their homes. They can also bring the items directly to the community. As a next step, the companions recycle the things donated, repair or renew them and, finally, resell in Emmaus shops (located in most of cases on the community’s premises). The communities that I had a chance to visit would open their shops to the public two or three times per week. Every time, about an hour before the opening, a big crowd gathered behind the community’s gate. When the door was opened, a horde of people ran as fast as they could towards their preferred stands. This view could be compared to what happens in most of shopping centres on a Black Friday. This proves how popular this form of shopping is in France. For many people this is a great opportunity to find some original furniture for their homes, buy inexpensive clothes or increase their collections of CDs or books. They quite often manage to find some real gems among the second hand items sold by the Emmaus companions.

In summertime, some of the communities invite people from France and abroad to participate in their international volunteering camps. This year, you can sign up for volunteering in: Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Spain, France, Romania and Italy. If you are interested, below the article you can find all the necessary links.

A view of the Pointe Rouge community in Marseille, as seen from the room of a volunteer (myself)

Volunteering for Emmaus

If you would like to participate in the summer volunteer programme, the first thing you need to do is sign up through their website. You have to choose a country and a community for your stay and then contact the person in charge of it to discuss all the details. You have to pay for your transport to the selected place but this is actually the only expense that you have to cover from your own pocket. Accomodation and meals are provided by the community. The length of your stay has to be discussed with the management. The communities that I visited did not impose anything on volunteers – you could arrive and leave as you pleased, stay for one week or a couple of months.

Generally speaking, volunteering for Emmaüs means supporting the companions in their daily work. Task the volunteers are assigned to usually include recycling, renovation, selling items in the shop, helping in the kitchen, collecting unwanted items from people’s homes. The work is not particularly heavy – it depends on your skills and physical condition. It is never dangerous or excessively difficult. However, please bear in mind it is mainly physical work and, as such, can be tough at times. Especially for gentlemen – they are sometimes asked, for instance, to carry and transport heavy furniture. And temperatures in places such as Marseille tend to be high in summertime. Ladies are usually assigned to some light and pleasant work. I usually helped in the kitchen, acted as sales assistant in Emmaus shops, recycled received items or took care of the beach library maintained by Emmaus in summertime.

As one of their projects, Emmaus in Marseille maintains a beach library available for the people spending their holiday in this city. In the picture you can see a volunteer and a companion choosing books for the library.
And here’s how the library looks like!

Is the summer volunteer programme only about work?

Absolutely not! You work five days per week, more or less 8 hours per day (including a long lunch break). The afternoons are free of work and you can spend them relaxing, visiting the neighbourhood or hanging out with other volunteers and companions. At weekends, the management of the community usually organise some sightseeing, trips or other type of entertainment for the volunteers.

My experience with Emmaus includes staying at four different communities in France.

In the time free of work I had a chance to visit the beautiful and very diverse neighbourhoods of the above places. Among other things, I went on a trip to a charming town of Cassis and to the Frioul islands where the count Monte Christo was imprisoned. I walked the picturesque beaches of Brittany, ate traditional Breton galettes (buckwheat crepes), while sipping some exquisite French cider. I spent a weekend camping in the Pyrenees, saw the cities of Toulouse and Brussels, tried some pastis. I met a lot of interesting people from all around the world: France, Russia, the US, Spain, Romania, even El Salvador. Thanks to Emmaus, I considerably improved my informal French. I also renovated an old wardrobe. And the most important thing: this is how I first met my husband. Today, I consider my volunteering for Emmaus as one of the greatest adventures in my life so far. These low-budget travels, lasting a couple of weeks each, brought so much value and happiness to my life.

An evening in Marseille. Summer 2010.

If the vision depicted above seems tempting to you, maybe you will give it a try and sign up for Emmaus volunteering programme? Or maybe you have a friend that could be interested? If yes, here are the necessary links:

 

 

 

 

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