Interview with Sheila Smith, former Director of UNA Exchange (1988-2016), conducted by UNA Exchange 2019/2020 volunteers Helene Chaland and Loeiza Stucker.
Did you know that 2020 marks a special anniversary? This year we are celebrating 100 years of workcamps and international volunteering for peace! A hundred years ago, Pierre Ceresole created what is known today as an International Workcamp. The first international voluntary project took place on the former battlefield of Verdun in France in 1920.
UNA Exchange 2019/2020 European Solidarity Corps volunteers Helene and Loeiza interviewed Sheila Smith, former director of UNA Exchange, for the occasion.
Could you introduce yourself?
My name is Sheila Smith. I’m from Cardiff, still in Cardiff.
What do you do?
I do different things now, mostly I am a painter/decorator. But I do some gardening, I still do some youth work training. I think you call it a “portfolio career”.
What was your motivation to join a work camp?
Originally, well, firstly, the first workcamp I did was in 1986, in what was then West Germany. The nearest town was called Würzburg, in Southern Germany. And I think the reason I did it was that I had never heard of anything like this, anything like international workcamps or international volunteering. I saw a small article in the local newspaper in Cardiff promoting workcamps, promoting what is now UNA Exchange, and there was an offer to a particular project to work in the restoration of a castle. I just thought, “Yeah, why not? this is interesting, I just finished college, I have no job”. I did not know what I was going to do, and the idea of going to Germany for two weeks was quite interesting. It was exciting and I’d say in the eighties, not many people did that kind of thing. It was different. It was adventure. Adventure and excitement.
How many more workcamps did you do?
I haven’t counted! That was 1986, then I was the leader of a workcamp in Wales a couple of years later. I did two in the United States, China, Vietnam, India…that’s about six or seven over many years.
Do you have a striking memory of one [particular workcamp]?
Several striking memories, from possibly all of them in different ways, for different reasons. The first one had a massive impact, it changed my life completely. It brought me into UNA Exchange, and as you may be aware I got to work for UNA Exchange.
That first experience, it was a big workcamp – we were about thirty volunteers, mostly Europeans, a couple of Canadians, a guy from Algeria, but otherwise Europeans. It was that European experience, for me it was massive. It was the first time I was traveling outside of the UK within Europe. I had been to Turkey and Egypt but it was the first time that I had been in a European country. And it was that sense of Europeanness in a way, with French, Spanish or German volunteers from both sides of then divided Germany. I think it was that sense of community within that group of volunteers and small things -realizing differences, enjoying the differences that we found between ourselves, just in the way we were washing up or preparing food. Very ordinary things but from a person’s point of view –quite big differences.
I have a strong memory of the workcamp I led in Wales because it was quite unusual. We took a group of elderly people on holiday -quite locally, they were from Pontypridd, which is just north of Cardiff- and we took them to a holiday centre, to the west of Cardiff. But they were all quite infirm, with some almost disabilities. It was to give them a break but also give a break to their carers.
Big changes that happened in a small time for them… I remember a very small old lady. She was very withdrawn, she didn’t speak very much, she didn’t move very much but by the end of the week she was out of her wheelchair, she was walking a little bit going up some stairs… It was just these tiny changes that made me realise that we could make a difference, and we did make a difference.
You say that workcamps changed your life – in what way ?
I began to work for UNA Exchange when I came back from this German workcamp. I did not have a job, youth unemployment in this country was very high at that point, I studied a very useful degree in art [she says with a chuckle], so there was no possible job after that but I had a nice time… but what was happening at that time is that the government was running youth unemployment programme. UNA exchange had one member of staff at that time and eight people working under the youth employment training programme and then I joined, I think I came for a one year contract – It was part-time. That was in 1987, and then towards the ends of my contract the permanent member of staff left and I luckily got her job in 1988, and I stayed working with UNA until 2016!
That was 20 years of my life, twenty years of crazy madness working for this organization. What a pleasure, what a privilege. What a stress!
What did you take from workcamps?
Many of the things I mentioned, I think it introduced me to a set of values I probably had inside me but wasn’t necessarily aware of – concerning community and relationships between people, the power as well of people doing things together, the power to change things, how small things can make a big difference… A very permanent difference in a lot of ways, and then basic human values of being good to each other, of positivity and optimism… And always believing there is a solution to something, there is a way of achieving something, there is a good outcome that can come from everything. That is difficult to say on this day as this country leaves the European Union but there are good things somewhere in everything. So yes, positivity probably ! That’s one huge thing I think.
Has anyone you met during these workcamps said something that really resonated with you?
It’s an interesting question. There is one person –but it is in the professional sense- that I worked with for many years, for probably for fifteen or twenty years, that I think had a really big impact on me. He is a French guy who worked with one of the partner organizations in Clermont-Ferrant. He was the most difficult man I ever met -a very good friend of mine now– but very difficult to work with, in a lot of ways, because of the way he analysed things and the way he tried to really think about what he was doing. I’m not a deep thinker, I’m a practical person, I’m a doer. But I think he taught me that really knowing why you’re making a decision, thinking why you’re making that decision and trying to be conscious of making the right decision, and having reasons for your decisions, it had a big impact on the way I worked. As I said he’s a good friend of mine -there was a good outcome in the end.
And alongside that then, many anecdotal stories from volunteers -there was one volunteer in particular– I don’t know if you’ve met him, Callum Barron. He lives in Penarth, which is very close from here. He worked and volunteered for UNA for probably about eight years, from the age of seventeen or eighteen. He had a lot of problems -by his own admission he had a lot of problems in his personal life- and he was introduced to UNA by youth workers. I think he joined a workcamp in Italy first, and anyway fast forward, he then did EVS (European Voluntary Service) in Lithuania for six months, he did a short project in Poland for three months… After all of these things he did with us he basically said in a nutshell – I think it was as I was leaving UNA – “If I hadn’t done these things, If UNA hadn’t not introduced me to these things, I would have ended dead or in jail…”. And still, when I say it, it’s… [she doesn’t have the words]
So you would recommend doing a workcamp to any kind of young people ?
Always. Definitely. And doing a simple workcamp. I think nowadays when people look at this type of opportunity or activity they think Thailand, or Tanzania, or Mexico… But I always did and I would always recommend Belgium or France first because it’s closer, it’s not so culturally, massively different so it’s an easier first step – it’s easy to get into, you may be dealing with the culture shock of the workcamp but you’re not necessarily dealing with the culture shock of such a different society. I think any young person, if they started to do these things at the age of seventeen or eighteen, they have got many years of opportunities, that they can carry on doing these things, leading into long-term volunteering for example and it’s a simple thing you can do. It’s very accessible and very meaningful as well so I would definitely recommend it of course.
What do you still carry with you from all these workcamps ?
Friends. Friendship. Simple. After so much time, thirty years, then that’s obviously a big part of my life and I think it’s the friendships I’ve got – virtually everybody I know in my life I can say has had a connection this world – volunteering world. I’m so rich because of that. Yes, friendship.
Do you have anything else to say to the Alliance or to young people ?
Dear alliance I miss you ! I mean the alliance had a big impact on my life as well. Since 1988 I’ve lost count of the meetings, activities, seminars, events of the alliance that I joined, and I had the pleasure of being on the executive committee of the alliance for four years as Vice President. That also had a big impact on my life as well, to be more active outside of here, so to work on the European level, develop projects… At that time -because that was the late nineties- it was the beginning of the EVS programme, and many experimental actions going on, and that was really exciting, we developed trainings for trainers – quite practical things. The alliance is a very precious network, of obviously many member organizations, but in itself, of itself, it has a massive meaning and power I think for our movement. On a personal level, I have so many good memories and experiences and crazy times – and quite a lot of drinking! But yeah, lots of friendships and good ideas and exciting times. I send lots of greetings to the Alliance!
Last question, this year we celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the creation of international workcamps, what do you think the future holds for international workcamps?
Wow, that’s a good question as well. I think there’s more need for this kind of work now than in all my thirty/twenty-eight years I was involved. What’s happening in our societies, particularly in Europe and in the United States, I think is quite frightening, quite worrying and depressing in some ways but it points to the need for this work more than ever. I think in a way I am quite frustrated to be outside the organization now because what our communities need is much more diversity, much more exchange and interaction between different people of all sorts of differences.
On one hand, I think it’s a massive challenge for the movement but it’s also a massive opportunity for the movement as well if it can find its way into those places, into those people. Then I think it has more relevance now perhaps than, not more than it has had before, but a different kind of relevance because it’s very needed at the moment. It’s an interesting time, I think the workcamp movement is relevant, it’s strong and resourceful so it will find its way. I don’t think it’s the easiest of times. In my years I enjoyed some very, let’s say, easy times where our government was very supportive and the European Union put resources into many progressive ideas for our kind of work and now it’s different. It is tough but it’s a movement that is constantly regenerating with new younger people, younger ideas, younger ways of doing things so it will survive and it will change. It is an interesting time.
Thank you !
Thank you! I like talking about these things…