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Apprentice Michael steps outside of his comfort zone
Our Tenancy Sustainment and Support Apprentice Michael Hutchings talks all about his fortnight in Romania in his latest blog as an Erasmus+ EuroApprentice ambassador.
I had worked in a bank for 12 years of my life; it was my first full time job, was safe and secure and had decent pay. Even though I was miserable there, I stayed for so long as it was the ‘safe option’. However the credit crunch happened and eventually as an impact of this redundancy came around and my number came up. I was very fortunate as around that time an apprenticeship opportunity came up with Bolton at Home, it was a chance for a fresh start and to start a new trade. Looking back the redundancy was the kick up the backside I needed to make a change.
I applied for the job and fortunately I was successful in my application and I remember that on my start date it was also the closing date for apprentices to apply for the Romania and Hungary trips funded through Erasmus+. I didn’t have much time to think about it and even though at the time it was against my nature to take a risk I decided why not? I knew deep down that I had to make changes in my life and take more risks and this was the perfect opportunity!
Don’t get me wrong, I had my reservations. I thought, I won’t know anyone and I struggle in social situations, what if we don’t get on? I don’t have any transferrable skills or speak the language, how can I help? I’m rubbish with kids, I don’t know how to relate to them, am I too old for this (I was 33 and the average age of my particular group was around 20)? On top of these doubts there was also my anxiety making me worry about every little detail imaginable, but I wanted to change and I knew I had to take some kind of action. I felt like I had nothing to show for my last 12 years, this wasn’t necessarily true but I certainly could have done more and this spurred me on to take the plunge despite every part of me screaming no!
After some quick form filling and a relaxed interview with team leaders I found out I was successful in my application and would be going out with the group assigned to the July trip to Romania! It was time to meet the team.
A couple of months prior to the trip we first met at our local community office, no one knew each other apart from a few people who had seen each other around at college. We started by going round the table and everyone made a brief introduction, then we had a presentation on the kind of work we would be taking part in and accommodation that we would be staying at. There was also a chance to ask more questions around the details of the trip and address any concerns that we might have going into it. We had multiple team building exercises lined up also in the build-up to the trip to help us get better acquainted prior to the mobility.
We went gorge walking together in the local area which was fun and a good opportunity to practice working together on some of the various challenges and activities set for us, we also got together to learn a bit about the local culture and some useful phrases to help us get by, we were also advised that many of the charity workers were fluent in English also so not knowing the language would not be an issue. A couple of my fears were quashed here, everyone was really friendly and if anything most were in the same situation as myself where they didn’t know anyone. The team activities also really helped us create a dialogue and break the ice.
Eventually the big day came, we hopped on a minibus at around 3am and were on our flight to Romania just a few hours later.
We arrived early Friday afternoon and after settling into our accommodation we were given a tour of the local area, villages and other sites that we would be working in; ths included the Roma villages of T?rlungeni and Zizin.
We shared rooms in groups of two to three which gave us a good opportunity to get to know each other a little better. There was also a large communal area where we could relax and take some time out.
Part of the village of Zizin can be seen in the photo to the left, it was a mish mash of different fabricated houses from basic wooden shacks to a couple of well-constructed ones that have been previously built by other volunteers before us.
Other sites included a school and community centre where the children could go to learn, build their confidence and have a meal. I later discovered that day that I would be working in the community centre for my first shift; straight away I had to face my fear of working with children!
The first day I was dropped off at the Mission House (village school and nursery) with one of the other volunteers, we spent the early morning setting up desks and art supplies for the first class coming in. We were advised to just observe at first and then integrate into the group as some of the children are a little nervous around strangers. At first it felt difficult as I was a complete stranger to them and didn’t speak the language. As they were painting and drawing I sat down and started drawing with them as I thought it might open some dialogue. What I realised through this was that it didn’t matter that we spoke different languages, in fact I was able to use art to open dialogue by drawing pictures of animals and pointing to tell the children English words for them and they would then tell me the Romanian counterpart. Once you start interacting and taking part in the same activities as them you become one of the group, your pictures open up dialogue and its really easy to relate through familiar art and imagery. After we'd finished painting we gathered round the piano and sang Romanian songs, it was later that the other workers told us what the lyrics meant, they were about having belief in themselves despite what others say or how they are treated. This is because the Roma people are treated differently, even the children in the schools simply because of the community they come from and colour of their skin.
The next day was also spent at the Mission House, there were no classes on but a lot of physical work was needed in and around the building. There was gardening to be done, rooms to be cleared out ahead of decorating and filing cabinets to be disassembled, moved and then reassembled. All while this was going on however all the children from the previous day were outside looking in through the fences, wanting to take part and help out and interested to see what we were doing. They helped us with the wheelbarrows and we taught then some more of our language. Everyone said looking back it was like we were celebrities to the children- they were even interested in watching you eat your lunch!
Looking back it was nowhere near as scary as I thought. I just used my common interest in art to relate to the children and where I thought there would be barriers with language there were actually countless opportunities to open a dialogue.
The rest of my first week was spent in the village working on building the foundations of a new house for a family whose home had been badly damaged in a flood a few weeks earlier. The idea was that we would lay the foundations and the next group along would start to build the house up from there. Everyone chipped in, including the locals. The villagers were very friendly and welcoming and appreciated the help we were providing. We had a translator with us to help with communication but oddly enough when doing physical work like that sometimes just a point or a gesture is more than enough. After measuring out and digging foundations we built a brace which would fit into the foundation and then enable us to fill it with rocks and cement.
We got the weekends to ourselves but we all chose to go out as a group. I think the week working together had helped us form a strong bond despite all being different personalities from different backgrounds. We went out for a meal in Brasov, visited Dracula's castle and the Seven Ladders Country Park; a hike up the Cliffside which includes having to climb seven large (and rather daunting) ladders! It was fun to spend some down time together but also we got some time to ourselves and freedom to relax back at the accommodation or explore the local area and shops.
The second week we initially spent some time in the village of Zizin finishing off the foundations by filling them with rocks and cement. Mixing the cement was hard work but the villagers were more than happy to chip in and with a little bit of teamwork we got it completed ahead of schedule. This left us some more time in the week to work on other houses that were a lot further along in their construction or just needed some touching up, this was another good opportunity to learn some new skills and get out of my comfort zone. We helped paint the outside of a house for a grateful family, using rollers and ladders to reach the higher places at the top. We had a massive tub of paint for the job, I remember carrying it in and gently lowering it to the ground to put it down, it was about a centimetre off the ground when I decided to let go….CRACK! The tub broke and wet paint all over their driveway!
I was mortified at the time, we tried to scoop it all back up in cups and put it into another bucket as this was the only paint we had at the time. Fortunately we did manage to salvage most of it back, what was more surprising was that the family still seemed to appreciate our help and were very forgiving considering the mess I'd made! They seemed very grateful for all the help we were giving. We also worked on constructing a roof and plastering another house; I had no skills in plastering but it was a case of just being shown by someone and then following suite with no language needed! It may sound silly, but I didn’t even know how to saw a piece of wood properly before and I do now and despite my complete lack of DIY skills; I feel I was able to contribute and make a difference. Even if you’re not so good with physical work there’s always work to be done around the village with the children and families.
At the end of the second week we had a lunch kindly provided by FAST Charity and a fun awards ceremony for the team. Everyone got various awards in the form of a chocolate bar, from who had the best banter to the clumsiest person, it was all in good spirits and sure was great fun!
What I learnt from the experience is that it’s worthwhile taking risks and pushing through your anxiety barriers which I think everyone has. Even when things don’t go to plan or as smoothly as you think it’s never the end of the world and you always learn from the situation. Meeting people from different backgrounds and walks of life will help you grow as a person and broaden your horizons, not to mention seeing how life is in another country and applying this new perspective back in your own.
Interested? Click here to learn more about our 'Foundation for the Future' initiative, a new partnership which offers a range of amazing volunteering opportunities similar to those funded by Erasmus+.
Katy Henry, our Project Management and Business Development Apprentice also wrote a blog on her experience in Romania. You can read it here.
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