Viva Puglia, Viva Focaccia

EVS is a truly extraordinary experience. It can help you to find life direction, languages, friends from around the world and above all mountains of memorable moments. And yet so many people have never heard of it. I hadn't either until I was on a random online forum in early 2009 and someone's post about volunteering abroad caught my eye.

The post led me to the website of an organisation in the North of England which coordinated placements all over the world. Before I knew it I was in touch and on my way up to meet them. After an eye opening initial meeting with the project coordinator, I returned home with more ideas than I could count.

Fast forward nine months. In that nine months I completed two short term projects in Italy, one EVS project of three weeks and a Leonardo Da Vinci placement of five weeks. Both were fantastic experiences which grew me as a person but the volunteer story I want to share is my long term, for that experience is what led me to be doing what I am doing now.

I got off the plane feeling excited and a little nervous, my mind racing at the thought of spending six whole months away from home. I was met at the airport by a member of the organisation and brought to my host city: Altamura, in the region of Puglia. I went to my flat and met my fellow volunteers, a nice bunch of guys. The first few weeks were a blur of meeting people, getting into the Italian lifestyle and of course trying to cross roads in one piece. I started to get to know my organisation, Associazione Culturale Link, and all of its activities.

I began language lessons with one of my mentors which was a challenge as I'd never particularly enjoyed languages at school. This was somehow different however. I began to realise that here I was learning Italian because I wanted to be able to communicate with people, as opposed to learning for the sake of getting a grade or a qualification. There's only so many times you can walk into your local bakery, point at the shelf and say the Italian word for bread before you think- Steve they know it's bread, they make it. So I began to converse with anyone and everyone I could to pick up Italian quicker and within a few weeks I could have a basic conversation.

In my work activities I began to help my colleagues in the running of some local activities. The more I got to know my host organisation the more fascinated I became. I remember sitting in the office one afternoon drinking a coffee and looking at all of the activity going on around me. People from all over the world were coming together to do projects, exchange culture and learn new things. I decided there and then that this was the type of work I wanted to do. I wanted to start an organisation of my own to do projects for my community in Merseyside. I began firing emails off to all kinds of organisations in the UK asking for apprenticeships and job opportunities so I could effectively break into the industry.

In my spare time I explored Altamura and some of the surrounding cities with my new friends and colleagues. I explored the Italian cuisine with great passion and came across a type of bread called focaccia (unbelievably tasty and typical of the region). One afternoon in the volunteer house I was playing the guitar when one or two of my house mates sang along, and we decided to start a band. By the end of my project we had written about six songs in total, recorded three in studio quality and decided on the name Dreamstorm. We performed in the Altamura White Night festival and at an event hosted on a farm in the Italian countryside. Yet another thing I'd never imagined myself doing.

One of the most unbelievable moments in my project was during a trip to the beach with my fellow volunteers. It was one of those nice days which turns into a nightmare in a matter of minutes. The sun was out, the beach was quiet, we had salami paninis and nice cold drinks for lunch- what could possibly go wrong? When we'd got set up in our spot, three of the gang decided to go for a walk along the beach. Myself and another friend volunteered to stay and watch the bags. After ten minutes we decided to have a paddle in the sea to cool off. Sea's a bit choppy, I thought, but it's fairly shallow so no problem right? Wrong.

We paddled deeper, joking and laughing all the time. Joking around so much in fact that we failed to notice the current lapping at our waists and the gradually deepening sand below our feet.

"we've come out a bit too far mate, swim back in?" I asked. He nodded.

There was a terrible moment of realisation where we looked at each other after a minute's solid swimming. We had't actually gone anywhere but further out. The current had us, and as good as we were at swimming there was no chance of outdoing the tide. The experience lasted for what seemed like a lifetime. There was genuinely a moment where it seemed like neither of us had the energy to fight the waves any more. To make matters worse I'd decided to paddle in my tracksuit bottoms which were at the time like a dead weight around my legs. I weighed up my options- my pants or my life. I chose life and continued to try floating in the raging waves.

To cut a long story short, a rescue boat was sent out but was overturned in the waves stranding the driver with us. In the end it was one old man who swam out David Hasslehoff style with a rope who saved us. So swimming in choppy waters- Never again. It makes me laugh now, imagining what the locals must have made of the sunburned Englishman being pulled on a rope out of the water in underpants. According to the ambulance crew which awaited us we were twenty minutes drift away from being out of reach and on our way to Albania.

There were of course a great number of positive experiences in my project which outweighed this near death experience such as teaching young people and children to make and use juggling equipment in street workshops, creating and presenting broadcasts on the local radio, jamming on my guitar in the central piazza with friends and much more.

One of my greatest surprises came just before the end of my project when I opened my emails to find one from my sending organisation. They wanted to offer me an apprenticeship as a programmes facilitator in their local and international projects. With my next logical step in place I completed my project in Italy and returned home to start my new job.

In the two years that followed I worked for my sending organisation, initially as an apprentice but finally as the short term programmes facilitator for EVS and Leonardo Da Vinci placements, learning more all the time.

After these two years I took a leap of faith and started my own organisation. I'm still doing that now, one and a half years later (at the time of writing). It is called Linkyouth UK CIC, named after my hosting organisation in Italy. We now run a range of local projects, international placements and aim to expand our projects into many other countries and areas of youth work.

If I had not done EVS I do not know what I'd be doing now. I certainly would not be the Director of an organisation. I would not have friends from around the world, be able to speak another language or have been in a multi-lingual band.

It is difficult to compress the impact this project had on my life into a short story, and of course there are so many great things from my project that are not in here but to sum up in a few words:

Culture and language, friends and memories, pants and life, experience and knowledge, motivation and direction, all in that six month project.

Viva Altamura. Viva Focaccia.