Interview with ENIL volunteer Nina Portolan

My name is Nina Portolan, I am 23 years old and I am from Serbia I am a university student and a para-athlete in karate. I am doing karate for persons with disabilities, I am part of the national Para karate team. My three main things in my life right now are my friendships, my sport and the activism I started two years ago.

Why did you want to volunteer and how did you hear about the European Solidarity Corps?

I always wanted to volunteer and had the wish to travel abroad and leave for a while abroad just to have the experience of a different culture and different people in my life. And if there was a possibility to pair it with a good cause even better. Before my volunteering within the European Solidarity Corps Programme (ESC) I didn’t know there was such an opportunity. I was looking for some year for such an opportunity. Then in 2019 in France, Strasbourg I was attending a study session for young people I met my friend Carmen who did an ESC project and she told me about this opportunity which was available and acceptable for persons with disabilities.

How did you find your hosting organization?

Actually, I found my hosting organization during the same study session in Strasbbourg. Marco, one of the staff workers from the European Network on Independent living (ENIL), my hosting organization, was there. He introduced me to ENILS work. The study session was about mental health and disability, organised by ENIL and Euro Youth Mental Health, another organization. I didn’t immediately know that I was going to volunteer ENIL, but I liked their work. I told my self that if they have an open spot for working volunteering collaborating, I’d like very much to work with them. When I arrived home, one month later I saw their call for a volunteer on their website and I applied. It was very special because at the study session I already met some of ENIL’s staff now I would work with them.

How was the enrollment process and the matching of your expectations with a project?

It is important to mention that young people willing to do a project via this programme they need to register on the portal.

It was very easy. On their website making a profile was easy. I have some problems with my profile. I had to fill in a form to create my profile and then they have you in their data base to which organisations have access and these ones can reach out to youand offer you a place in their project. Of course you can either accept or decline their invitation. What is very important to know is that if you decline projects your chances to be accepted in other projects diminishes.

When did you start your project and how long does it last?

I started my project in May. Officially I was supposed to start it in April, but due to COVID-19 and the pandemic situation my hosting organization was not able to set up the conditions for remote working and my contract started in May and will last until 30 November.

COVID-19 changed the plans of many of us, what changed for you?

We hoped that I’ll be at least able to do part of my project in Brussels at the office after the lock-down was lifted. But since the situation takes longer then thought I am still working remotely from Serbia.

ENIL is a very active organization they are organizing many activities, conferences events. With the pandemic situation many of the events have been canceled, postponed for later in the year or next year. I’ll miss these experiences. Certain activities can be organised online, but as no one was prepared for this some things are just impossible to do them online.

How is remote or online volunteering?

It is good, but one of the thing I am definitely missing is the meetings with the Commission. If I were in Brussels, I’d join some of them and listen into and I’d learn many thing other wise I can’t. Of course I am very grateful that many meetings have been removed online, but I think face to face meetings have a different value that can’b be found in the online ones.

Another aspect I am missing is socializing. Meeting other volunteers for example.

What are you doing as a volunteer in your project?

I am doing translation, I made the survey on independent Living that is till open for some more days, right now I am writing a contribution to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights that will be related to acces to leasure activities and sport for people with disabilities And later I’ll be able to elaborate more on this as it is my field and thiss will be my mini personal project.

You can do quite many things online for your project as we can see, do you miss anything?

I miss contact with other volunteer doing similar experience.

Do you have contact with the other volunteers, how is this organised?

Unfortunately, I don’t. I don not have contact with any volunteer from my country who is abroad or with others. I have only contact with volunteers working at ENIL or organisations working close with ENIL

Who put you in contact with these volunteers?

ENIL did it. My colleagues from the office put me in contact with them. So now I am in contact with them via e-mail and social media. So it is a very samall network.

Do you have any contact with your National Agency (the institution in charge of the management of the Programme in the EU member states)?

No, I do not. It is the person in charge of my project from ENIL who has contact with them. I haven’t had any direct contact with them.

Did you have any training given by the National Agency, normally when you arrive in your hosting country all volunteers receive a training, how was this organised in your case?

With my hosting organization we discussed this before I started my project. Oficially there is no training that takes place during this period. My hosting organization organised a meeting with me where they went through all the stages of the project and presented me some video presentation about the programme of which one was created by the National Agency or the Commission.

Would you have any recommendations for your young peers who are applying within the programme or are about to start a project in the same conditions? Do you recommend to do a project in these circumstances?

For the volunteers who are working like me remotely from their home, I advise them to be patient and creative. If certain tasks are not available online, they can then encourage their hosting organization to rethink the concept and make it available. And for those who are stucked in their hosting country in quarantine be patient and creative and find new ways in experiencing the volunteering.

For those who are patient and creative and have just found the good project and the organization of their dream, I would say go forward and do it. Why not? But each future volunteer has to see which are his goals why do they want to volunteer and this is very personal.

When we talked for the first time you were mentioning how much you miss the intercultural aspect of the project and getting to know the culture of your hosting country. Would this influence what you said before?

I would simply advise the one preparing to volunteer within the programme to to have a clear picture they could ask the future hosting organization if later similar opportunities would be available so that they could decide whether to do it in the given circumstances or postpone their volunteering.

Do you have any advise recommendations for the decision makers, those in charge of the projects the organisations, the National Agencies, the politici?

When it comes to the legislators, I think in these circumstances there is need for more support and freedom. I am not the right person to say how it should be done but this is my feeling that more flexibility is needed in these times. When it comes to the National Agencies the same applies, even more we need to be smart when it comes to to distributing our resources And they should also be flexible in postponing some projects as the situation is so unpredictable in these days. Concerning the hosting and sending organization I have had no problems, but as this situation is new to all of us it is important to be open for new ideas, ways and the hosting organization should pay more attention to the social aspect and try and make as many of their activity as possible remotely.

What could they adapt? Do you have any concrete proposals?

They could organize more online meetings. Conferences, webinars etc. Some organisations are already doing it. They could organize meetings with other volunteers to offer them the possibility to meet online. social

What about an online training that would provide you information about the programme, volunteering would this help you as a volunteer ?

Yes it would help. I think it is a lonely experience without that. I am lucky that my hosting organization was very happy to helping me with this in my beginning of the project But it would be much easier for all of us to starting with a training where we could meet also other volunteers.

Your volunteering takes place online. But your needs are still there. So did you received any support concerning your disability?

I do receive my pocket money and the disability support money.

Were there put in mace any measures to accommodate your disability needs such as: a flexible programme, equipment to use your computer etc?

In my case this is not needed because I am at home with my parents who support me. But if I were to travel to Brussels yes, there personal assistance was arranged. And I would have also been accommodated in an apartment adapted to my needs.

Would you like to share a message with potential volunteers or others doing an ESC project?

It’s definitely a worthy experience even if you are stocked doing it online it’s an amazing experience so do try it Do not get discouraged by your disability, your nationality or anything you may initially think would lower your chances, just try go for it, no matter the circumstances, If you are volunteering in these circumstances just be patient, hopeful and take what it is. Good luck and stay healthy!