International work camps go national on jubilee year, but volunteer spirit strong

Photo: Archive of INEX-SDA

The concept of international work camps is 100 years old. Every year several hundred foreign nationals come to the Czech Republic to participate in interesting projects in the field of renovation, environmental protection or community work, and hundreds of Czechs go abroad for the same purpose. I spoke to Zuzana Pitková from the NGO INEX which organizes international work camps in the Czech Republic about what they offer and in what way this year is different.

Photo: Archive of INEX-SDA
Zuzana Pitková,  photo: Archive of INEX-SDA

“INEX is an NGO, founded in 1991, and our activities are centred around international voluntary work and intercultural education, because we want to live in a society that is tolerant and open-minded and we want to promote active citizenship. That is our vision and our mission is to create opportunities for active participation, to enable participants to gain knowledge and experience.”

What kind of volunteer projects have you organized in the past years?

“Our main activity is organizing work camps -3-day to 3-week long volunteer projects –where a group of volunteers help an NGO or a local municipality. They work together, spend their free time together, explore the area, they go on trips, they cook, they live together as a group. Those are our primary projects and we organize around 30 to 40 work camps a year.”

Here in the Czech Republic?

Photo: Archive of INEX-SDA

“Yes, here in the Czech Republic. The way these camps are organized, not just here in the Czech Republic but all over the world, is that foreigners come here to help and we send Czechs abroad.”

Can you tell me in what kind of things they do?

“We have four basic categories or areas they can choose from. The first is work camps that help in communities; that work is organized with municipalities, usually it is a small village or town where volunteers help with the renovation of public spaces, the organization of local festivals or children’s days or the restoration of local landmarks. The second category is renovating or reconstructing historical monuments and buildings such as castles, churches, historical breweries and so on. The third category are social projects which help various groups of people, either people facing social exclusion, children and youths, the elderly, people with special needs.”

Photo: Archive of INEX-SDA

Is there not a language barrier in this particular area?

“Usually not. The volunteers usually speak just English, but we always have two camp leaders on work camps who speak both Czech and English and they can translate if needed.”

And the fourth area?

“The fourth area concerns Nature. So the focus is on environmental protection and education towards an environmentally friendly lifestyle. Volunteers work in nature reserves, forests and the like.”

Photo: Archive of INEX-SDA

And I understand they can enlist to help in pairs, individually, or in groups, even families, is that right?

“Yes, that’s right. You can come by yourself and meet new people, make new friends, or you can come as a couple or a group and we also have two family work camps tailored especially to families –so you can take your grandchildren, come with your aunt or cousin- and we have a teenage work camp for teenagers from 15 to 17.”

Do people always get what they ask for?

“Yes, they usually do, because we have around 7 to 10 work camps in each area, so there are usually vacancies. We always try to accommodate volunteers so that they are satisfied with where they are going.”

Photo: Archive of INEX-SDA

How many people come from abroad every year?

“We usually have around 350 volunteers from abroad.”

Of course, this year is different due to the coronavirus pandemic – so what is happening this year?

“Yes, unfortunately, due to the situation this year we had to cancel the work camps on an international level and stop the placement of foreign volunteers, but because NGOs and municipalities need help more than ever, we decided to make the work camps national. So this year they are open to everyone living in the Czech Republic.”

Photo: Archive of INEX-SDA

So Czechs of foreigners residing in the Czech Republic can contact you and volunteer?

“Exactly, the work camps will still be in English and Czech, so even if you only speak Czech and are not comfortable speaking English, or the other way round, there will be no problem because we have camp leaders who are more than willing to help you and translate if needed. We want to be open as much as we can to all the different groups and to foreigners living in the Czech Republic to come and join our projects because we think it is a great opportunity to meet other people and to foster solidarity and tolerance in these difficult times.”

Photo: Archive of INEX-SDA

Has the epidemic changed the nature of these work camps? Will there be strict hygiene rules in place?

“Things will change a little bit, yes. People will be asked to sign a form saying they have not had any infection in the past 14 days or any symptoms and they haven’t been around anyone infected. Also there will be stricter hygiene rules. We will try to make it as safe as possible, so conditions will be more strict when preparing food or cleaning the common areas – that will have to be more often – but I think we can still make it a good experience for everyone.”

Photo: Archive of INEX-SDA

What does a day’s work entail? Could you give us an idea?

“Well, it differs slightly with every work camp, depending on what the project is, but the volunteers always have a say in the work hours and schedule. They usually work six hours per day. So, they wake up, they make breakfast together, then they work for three to four hours with a break in between, then they come back for lunch which is either provided or they make it themselves, and then they work a bit more, or sometimes they have the whole afternoon off and there is always and interesting program either provided by the local partner or the group plans it themselves. And usually weekends are free, so the group can visit the local sights.”

Photo: Archive of INEX-SDA

And where do they live?

“It varies. The local partner provides the accommodation. So it can be the local cultural centre, the premises of the organization, tents, hostels, it varies, but the conditions are clearly stated so the volunteers always know where they will live and what kind of work they will be doing.”

And now with the strict hygiene conditions in place –does it mean that volunteers who are there alone will get rooms to themselves?

“We will try to give them more space. Unfortunately, not everyone will be able to get their own room, because not all the local partners can provide that, but we will try to give everyone as much space as possible and if someone does not feel comfortable, they can always bring a tent, or we will try to find a solution if they don’t feel comfortable sharing a room with others.”

Photo: Archive of INEX-SDA

When do the camps start and have many people have already volunteered this year?

“They start at the end of June – on June 26 – and the last work camps end in September. The work camps are usually from 3 days to 15 days, there are week-long camps, camps that last for a fortnight or a weekend, people can chose whatever suits them best. Usually we have around 10 people in one work camp and this year we still need a lot of volunteers. So please, if you feel like spending your holidays differently, want to meet new people, gain new experience, you are more than welcome to join.”

How can they contact you?

“You can contact us via our website –– either to get more information about our activities or go directly to our database where all our work camps are listed –with details of the work, the dates and the number of volunteers needed. Then you just fill out a simple application and that’s it – we’ll get back to you.”

This year the work camp season was to have been a jubilee one. Can you explain and will you be marking it in any special way?

“Yes, this year we are celebrating 100 years of international work camps because the first work camp took place in 1920 after the First World War. Cities were devastated and volunteers from Germany and France came together to help rebuild them –that’s how the idea was born. This year we were planning a big celebration, which cannot now take place, but we will still try to celebrate on a national level and organize some fun activities around the jubilee.”