My name is Hélène, I am originally from suburban Paris and I am twenty-four years old. After spending one year abroad as a teaching assistant in the USA, all I wanted to do was to pack my suitcase again and leave for new adventures.
That is when I started to think about taking part in an ESC programme – feeling so grateful for my amazing experience in a foreign country, I decided I wanted to find a true purpose to my future travelling plan. And what better way to give back to a community than volunteering ?
After one missed opportunity in 2018 (and that is a true story – I wanted to apply to exact same UNA Exchange’s long-term programme that I work for now but I missed the deadline because I had not met yet with someone from my future sending organisation…), I was to have two interviews, one for a volunteering project in Vietnam and the other in my own neighbourhood in my country.
Despite my wanting to go to Vietnam for the first time (my mom was born in Paris from Vietnamese parents that were forced to leave their country during the fifties), I chose to volunteer for the second project. Sometimes things seem to happen for a reason, and my volunteering project at home helped me develop new skills and made me believe that it is worth fighting for your dreams. I was now ready to be a volunteer abroad, and my mom and I know we will visit Vietnam together one day.
Having majored in English, I wanted to spend a year in the UK. Cardiff was the ideal destination for me : lush green landscapes and ancient traditions awaited me. But I also applied, and then was accepted, for a master’s degree in bilingual journalism (French/English) in Paris. When I got the email saying that I had been selected for this ESC project in Cardiff for the year 2019/2020, I could not believe it ! Knowing that you can only take part in an ESC project once in your life, I could not miss this opportunity.
Almost one week after my plane landed in Wales, I am still pinching myself. Hearing about the various projects, the work camps and the wonderful people behind the organization comforted me in my choice. In a matter of a few days, I discovered great initiatives, such as rugby for blind and visually impaired players, and learned about the fascinating history of the Temple of Peace and Health, the building that hosts UNA Exchange.
Did you know that is was built as “a memorial to those gallant men from all nations who gave their lives in the war that was to end war” (i.e. World War I) and that in its crypt lies the Welsh National Book of Remembrance ? 1,100 pages long, the book pays homage to the 35,000 Welsh men and women who lost their lives in the Great War.
Needless to say, all the Welsh people the other volunteers and I met welcomed us with open arms, helping us to get settled and to discover the local culture. I cannot wait to visit the local castles, try typically Welsh food, and of course, learn the Welsh language !
That is the most important lesson I learned this week : friendship and human bonds in general transcend languages barriers and cultural norms. Do not be afraid to reach out to someone even if their worldview is different. Maybe you will find you have more things in common than you thought, whether it is going to the pub to enjoy locally sourced beers, sharing recipes, going to church to hear religious music, playing sports, hiking or just having a laugh together !
Sharing is caring, so what are you waiting for ? Come join us !
Hélène Chaland, ESC Volunteer in Cardiff 2019/2020