La vie collective in Vaunières
Long term volunteering
Written by Eve from Ireland
Hi! My name is Eve and I’m a VSI volunteer currently working with Solidarités Jeunesses in the Hautes Alpes region of France for four months as part of a European Solidarity Corps volunteer exchange programme.
As I mark one month since my arrival here in Vaunières, in the Hameau de Jeunes, I’ve been reflecting on the whirlwind that has been the past few weeks. I can scarcely believe just how quickly the time has passed and yet how much has happened in the interim.
The opportunity to work as a volunteer with Solidarités Jeunesses in Vaunières first presented itself to me in January of this year. With almost 2 years of lockdown behind us and life just beginning to return to normal in Ireland, I wanted to make the most of our first ‘CoVid-free’ summer since 2019. As I expressed to a friend over coffee, I was eager to travel, gain some practical life experiences and do some voluntary work. She immediately pointed me in the direction of the European Solidarity Corps (ESC), an EU initiative which funds and facilitates volunteering exchanges for young people across Europe.
The opportunity seemed almost too good to be true and I hastily set about applying to positions across a variety of different countries and organisations, casting my net as wide as possible.
I was thrilled to hear back from Solidarités Jeunesses about an opening for a volunteer position in Vaunières, and after my initial Zoom meeting with them to discuss in more detail what the experience would entail, it seemed like an ideal fit.
Solidarités Jeunesses (SJ), or ‘Youth Solidarity’, was founded in Paris in the aftermath of the Second World War with the aim of bringing together young people from countries across Europe with common goals, such as promoting peace, protecting biodiversity and wildlife and helping vulnerable people in local communities.
A plaque commemorating the villages’ foundation in 1964 sits in front.
We are a team of about twenty full time workers and volunteers, ranging in age from 19 to 69 and in nationality from French, to German, Czech, Turkish, Romanian, Ukrainian and Irish!
One of the most commonly used phrases I’ve heard since my arrival here is “la vie collective” and it’s certainly true that collaboration and cooperation are at the heart of life here at Vaunières.
Daily life consists of a huge variety of different projects, or ‘chantiers’, many of which I’ve been party to since my arrival here. In the past four weeks, I have had the chance to help build a bridge over a local river, repair the roof of one of the village buildings, plant aubergine, potatoes, strawberries and beans in our greenhouse, prepare jam using acasia flowers and cook pesto using nettles, as well as a whole number of other activities which contribute to daily life.
Working the soil in preparation for planting potatoes.
The bridge took a team of 20 of us just one week to build!
Our greenhouse provides us with delicious fresh ingredients including aubergines, peas, garlic, strawberries and salad leaves!
Some of these projects are conducted independently, but most are with the help of groups of volunteers and young people. One of the most important aspects of the work here in Vaunières comes under the umbrella of the ‘Maison Tremplin’, an initiative of the French government which works alongside SJ to house and support French teenagers who may be struggling with personal issues or come from difficult family backgrounds. The chance to escape some of the challenges presented by everyday life, cultivate new skills and discover new skills can be really transformative for these young people, particularly at such a focal point in their lives, and it’s one of the aspects of the SJ project of which its founders are most proud.
Despite the hustle and bustle that governs everyday life, there is also plenty of downtime for us volunteers in the evenings and on weekends. We’ve organised plenty of outings to the local towns (Veynes and Gap) to visit cultural festivals, food markets and contemporary dance performances, and we regularly go out for hikes together in the surrounding mountains, picnics at the local lake and movie nights at the cinema.
Hiking is one of our favorite activities to do together at weekends!
A trip to the town of Gap for a local music festival.
Of course, the experience hasn’t been without its challenges. In spite of the six years of French classes I had under my belt from school, I immediately found the language barrier to be somewhat of an issue. On the first morning following my arrival at the village, I turned to one of my fellow volunteers at the breakfast table to ask where I could find the spoons. Most unfortunately, I had misremembered the French word for spoons – ‘cullières’ – as ‘culottes’, and had in fact, to my horror (though much to the others’ amusement) asked them where I could find the underwear(!).
In spite of this French ‘faux pas’, everyone I have encountered here has been exceptionally warm and welcoming. Our work and conversations are thoroughly enriched by the variety of experiences and cultures living under one roof and I am constantly spurred on by the motivation and enthusiasm that the people here display for the work Solidarités Jeunesses is doing and the values it represents.
Of course, we are only just getting warmed up for the exciting work yet to come as we welcome more groups and international work camps over the summer months ahead.
I can’t wait to get stuck in and to share my experiences with you in another blog post soon!
À bientôt, / Slán go fóill,