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Planning Retirement Online

Volunteers' Stories

From IVS, the International Voluntary Service

Founded in 1931, IVS is a non-profit organisation that promotes peace and social justice through volunteering.

This article series will bring you stories from their volunteers about their inspirational experiences helping local communities in the UK and around the world.

Summer in Zagreb

vista de zagreb croatia

Summer holidays stretch for weeks for teenage girls in Bedekovcina, a small town north of Zagreb.

Filling those weeks is a worldwide problem for parents; it is a bigger challenge when the teenagers no longer live with their parents, but in an institution.

This was the situation faced by seven volunteers, two from the Czech Republic and one each from Serbia, Spain, Turkey, Italy and by me from England.

We arrived in Bedekovcina in August eager to teach games, craftsmanship, songs and dancing,  set against the backdrop of an eighteenth century chateau  - always referred to as The Castle.

In fact, our only activity in The Castle was grabbing three substantial meals a day pushed towards us from a serving hatch in steel bowls on steel trays.
We actually lived in 1970s student accommodation a short walk away.

The first surprise was that the volunteers, five women and two men, outnumbered the five inmates. For The Castle and the dormitories dated from the Yugoslavian days, before fostering was considered better than communal living.

The twelve of us spent the first afternoon writing make-believe Facebook pages on flipchart paper and sticking them on the common room walls.

One of the teenagers included the name of her unborn child on her Facebook page. Others guarded their privacy. They were in the institution because they had been in trouble with the police, or were runaways, or came from dysfunctional families.

They would often begin sentences: “I used to live with my grandparents, and then with my father...” and then the story would end before its sad denouement.

They understood English, but were too lazy or bored to speak the language.  Occasionally, they showed an unexpected warmth and wit, making them delightful company. They were all good looking, and with great figures, without seeming to understand the dangers and advantages of this.

On the first evening we walked to the town‘s ice cream parlour. While chatting, one of the girls, who later told me that she was leaving Bedekovcina to become a lumberjack, informed everyone that I looked like Angela Merkel. I pretended to be insulted, but the German Chancellor would not have been happy either, because I am ten years older than her.

The pregnant girl told me that her boyfriend was happy to be a father, but I did not say that this was unusual for a teenage boy. She said they would marry and emigrate to Canada, where he would work as a labourer. She recounted all this as she chain smoked.

The planned activities started well with the arrival of a former Croatian soldier from Outward Bound organising strenuous exercises on the asphalt playground.

I could not imagine the pain falling on a pregnancy bump, and suffering grazing from the asphalt.

I wanted to collect the girls’ backstories to use of them in a creative writing class. But they were reluctant to reveal anything. I masked my prurience by saying: “Write about fashion. You all dress so well.”

But they insisted that they had no money, and could only look at fashion magazines. I later realized they had little pocket money that was increased by incentive payments earned for housework or doing well at school.

Heartlessly, I persisted, asking them to write about how they were facing up to childbirth because a second girl was also pregnant. But they clammed up.
Eventually, they started to write in their own language. The work camp leaders translated stories more poignant than I had dreamed of. One girl, who had been silent since we arrived, wrote about the ten days she spent at the seaside; she said they were the happiest days of her life.

One of the pregnant girls wrote, all pretend happiness abandoned:  “I want to buy a better boyfriend.”

I was fortunate to present my project was on the second day. After that, attendance fell sharply. It would surely have been more fun than self-revelation to learn yoga from one of the Czech volunteers or to learn salsa from the Turk.

But like teenagers the world over, the girls preferred to stay in bed all morning.

It therefore seemed important to get off the campus, but those who ran the institution objected to the volunteers taking the girls sightseeing in Zagreb.

They said they already knew Zagreb, and it would be too expensive. Only when the volunteers promised to pay for the girls’ dinners and a member of staff was included in the outing that we were give permission.

Old Zagreb is a beautiful city on a hilltop, approached by the world’s shortest funicular ride. We sat in a touristy café where one of the girls said: “I don’t like this café. I don’t like the people here.”

I realized that some of the girls were deeply depressed. Having volunteered in orphanages in Nigeria, Mongolia and Vietnam where the orphans’ ambitions had been embarrassingly unrealistic, I wondered at what age reality dawned on those with a bad start in life.

Yet the girls showed unusual talents. Arising from a casual conversation with the Serbian volunteer, one girl showed that she could twirl a baton as well as any American drum majorette. But she did not say where she had learnt this skill.

There were also heartening moments at Bedekovcina. The girls had tender, protective relationships with one another. And there were moments of serendipity. Croatians are addicted to a Turkish soap opera with subtitles. Each night when the programme came on the common room television, the girls would laugh as the Turkish volunteer attempted to read the Croatian subtitles.

Such levity  was more valuable than all the planned activities. For the last days, we tore up the programme, and just hung out, genuinely enjoying the company of so many different people.

In the years to come, whether the girls are felling trees or bringing up children, I hope they recall the nine days in August when organised events gave way to undemanding friendship.


Visit the Laterlife Interest Index for more Volunteer Stories

If you are over 50 and want to volunteer with IVS please contact
Our projects in 60 countries worldwide are open to volunteers of all ages and can be accessed here.


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