Christoph Meder, managing director of IBG Workcamps - Internationale Begegnung in Gemeinschaftsdiensten e.V.
Can young people with disabilities simply get out and experience the world? Of course they can! International workcamps are a great way for almost everyone to enjoy an intercultural exchange, give back to the community and face new challenges. The young adults can move out of their comfort zones while enjoying a safe space. But how?
Sabrina (not her real name) travelled by herself to attend an international workcamp, an open-air museum where she helped rebuild traditional mud houses. She is 21, from an immigrant family, suffers from epilepsy, used to attend a special needs school, has learning difficulties and is classed as severely disabled. She is training to be an office clerk on a special scheme.
International workcamps are a classic international youth work format. Young people from all over the world spend two or three weeks working together on a non-profit project, manage their daily schedules together, and familiarise themselves with the local surroundings and population. Workcamps are ideal for young adults aged 18 and above, although some also accept young people aged 15 or over. They sign up individually and also travel alone to the project venue, where they meet the rest of the group. The educational approach of a workcamp is based on the assumption that everyone shares a similar cultural and social background. For almost two decades now, IBG has been working towards inclusion and accessibility – which in concrete terms means removing the barriers to access and enabling all young people to attend a workcamp, regardless of their personal, cultural and social backgrounds. Besides young people with disabilities, IBG also seeks to include young people affected by other form of exclusion, such as young immigrants and school drop-outs.
Over the last few years, young people with a wide range of physical or intellectual impairments have travelled to workcamps in Germany or abroad or have travelled from abroad to complete a placement in Germany. Many of them have learning difficulties; some have mental illnesses or a physical disability. Some are wheelchair users, some are blind, some have artificial limbs and some have Down’s Syndrome. IBG offers personalised support so potential participants can overcome the objective and subjective barriers to access.
How did Sabrina do it? The organisation running her training scheme had invited IBG to hold a presentation on its international workcamps. An instructor was on hand to encourage people to register an interest, so he removed the first obstacle. Around fifteen young people of varying backgrounds showed an interest in hearing more about the workcamps. In the end, three of them, including Sabrina, decided to actually sign up for an international workcamp. Since Sabrina lives near Stuttgart, she started by attending an interview at IBG’s Stuttgart office, which was the second obstacle for her. The other interested parties, who lived further away, were offered other forms of advice and support.
These interviews are the starting point of a process involving personal preparation and support. They can also require the social workers who work with the potential participants to get involved. Identifying the barriers and personal obstacles to access requires all involved parties to trust each other, which is difficult to accomplish in a short space of time. This personal support is offered in order to make it easier for participants to overcome the obstacles without, however, robbing the workcamp of its challenging character. Her advisor sat down with Sabrina and helped her choose from more than 1,200 different workcamps worldwide to find a project that suited her needs in terms of dates, accessibility, language skills, type of project, infrastructure and above all her interests. The large number of available options is one of the strengths of international workcamps as a format, since there is always one that suits even the most specific of interests and needs. Sabrina opted for a workcamp at an open-air museum in Catalonia. She likes watching telenovelas, so she had an interest in Spain; the workcamp was relatively easy to reach from Stuttgart by air; and another two German-speaking participants would also be at the camp. The last point addressed her concerns that she wouldn’t be able to communicate well with her basic English.
In the run-up to the project Sabrina met up two more times with an IBG representative. She helped her plan her travel to Spain and home again, discussed her expectations, told her more about Spain and Catalonia, discussed daily life at the workcamp and helped her understand the infosheet, a ten-page English language document containing detailed information about the workcamp (meeting point, things to pack, emergency phone numbers etc.). Finally, they talked about what to do in an emergency so as to remove Sabrina’s last anxieties. Sabrina felt more confident because her IBG advisor got in touch regularly to inquire about her preparations, although she did want the project to retain its challenging character. When it comes to international workcamps, the main barriers to access are travel and language. The international nature of the project means that participants travel to the workcamp from all over the world, so the volunteers meet for the first time at the venue (or at the nearest train station). That is why the preparations tend to be dominated by the necessary travel arrangements. Participants and advisors plan the trip together; if necessary, the train operator, airline or a partner organisation can be requested to help the volunteer find the right train or plane. In some cases, the advisors “train” the participants to find their way around a railway station or airport.
Sabrina decided to do without assistance when she arrived at Barcelona airport and managed to find her own way to the train station and board the right train. Once she had arrived, her experience was much the same as that of the other 15 international volunteers from twelve different countries: somewhat disoriented, she tried to find her bed in the school that served as accommodation. At first she was rather slow to reach out to the two group leaders and the other volunteers. However, since everyone else seemed to feel the same way and some of the volunteers had to supplement their basic English with gestures and grimaces, Sabrina quickly became bold enough to speak out and was soon a regular part of the international group.
For the next two weeks, the group would normally have breakfast at 7 am, then work at the museum between 8 and 12 before meeting up for lunch. After lunch, some enjoyed a siesta, others played games or headed to the pool before returning to the museum for some more work between 4 and 6. Dinner was usually served around 10 pm. The group cooked together in groups of three, with Sabrina and her two co-workers preparing a traditional German dish of cheese “Spaetzle” for everyone. Everyday chores were also done together, with a changing rota for cleaning and cooking. The group leaders usually went grocery shopping.
The work in the museum was supervised by professionals; the volunteers produced mud bricks and paved paths together. This was a new experience for all of them, and everyone contributed as best they could. If someone needed a break from the exhausting physical work, often in high temperatures, they took one. The shared goals the groups worked towards brought everyone closer together; the pride they took in their work was common to all of them. The fact that Sabrina had learning difficulties became wholly irrelevant; either the others didn’t notice, or they didn’t consider it to be important. At the weekend, the group took trips to the surrounding area, once to the Pyrenees mountains and once to Barcelona. At regular intervals the group met to assess their progress. The group leaders were aware of Sabrina’s anxieties about fitting in, but she needn’t have worried at all. She had the contact details of her IBG advisor to use in case of an emergency.
Sabrina returned home happy and quite changed. The experience of being part of an international group, living with others, having worked with her own hands and so giving back to the community was invaluable. However, for Sabrina the most valuable experience was having dared to embark on this adventure by herself, travelling to Spain alone and facing an unknown situation. She returned with a sense of independence, greater confidence, better language skills and not least, with new friends. Her supervisor on her training course later said Sabrina appeared more confident professionally and personally.
During the preparations and also at the debriefing sessions, Sabrina met other German volunteers who had been at a workcamp and who did not have a disability. This interaction, which happened on an entirely level playing field, was another valuable part of her workcamp experience. Sabrina has since attended another workcamp in Estonia. This impact is one that we see in many returnees.
International workcamps have the greatest impact if volunteers travel alone. This is why most young people with a disability attended their workcamps without a carer and also travelled there by themselves. This of course requires them to be reasonably independent. For instance, they have to be able to take any necessary medication without assistance. The projects are for the most part voluntary in character; it is rare to find educators or other professional supervisors on site.
Should an international workcamp turn out to be too much of a challenge for young people with a disability, there are some low-threshold alternatives:
Inclusion and integration can be implemented in a workcamp in various ways. And still, each case is different. Finding responses to the specific needs of a young person with a disability means they can be made part of the group. This requires close coordination within the international network of workcamp organisations. For IBG and many other international partner organisations, experiences such as Sabrina’s are a welcome reminder that their approach works. Sabrina herself was a valuable addition to the international group. This is why staff are willing to invest additional effort in this target group. Because resources are limited, however, the number of young people who can (only) take part in such an international workcamp thanks to specific support will remain small. But – it’s worth it! For the young people themselves, the other volunteers in the workcamp, and for us full-time and volunteer staff inside the workcamp organisations.