Student to Student
Volunteer Workcamps in France
An Inexpensive and Rewarding Way to Go
Last summer I had some time to kill and not much money after studying French in Aix-en-Provence. So I decided to join a volunteer workcamp. In retrospect, I can’t believe I had even considered doing something
else. Compared to the many months I have spent backpacking across Europe, my workcamp experience was far cheaper and more intense. Workcamps are an inexpensive and incredibly rewarding way to go abroad. I paid $220 total—that
equals $10 per day—for food, housing, friends, foreign language enrichment, cultural education, masonry training, etc. It was the most fun and memorable three weeks of my 8-month stay in France.
The workcamp movement originated in Europe after World War I to increase crosscultural understanding. The major American workcamp organizations, SCI (Service Civil International), and VFP (Volunteers for Peace), charge $500 for 2- to 4-week international workcamps (see website for options). All are non-profit organizations that aim to help foster world peace through international friendship and understanding between individuals.
VFP, the organization I joined, offers over 2600 short-term volunteer experiences yearly in over 75 countries, with camps ranging from teaching, park maintenance or farming, preparing cultural celebrations, working
with refugees, children, or the elderly, to construction and renovation work. The VFP fee covers everything you will need during the workcamp but not transportation to the site. The projects are proposed by individuals or groups in
the host country who network through organizations such as VFP in many countries to find volunteers. (VFP places volunteers abroad in exchange for receiving foreign volunteers into domestic programs.) Registration for the camps is on
a first-come basis (no experience required). Most take place in the summer; plan to register for summertime camps as early as late March (via the website or by mail).
Workcamps are perfect for people who have some extra time while already abroad, who want to get some experience volunteering (in a specific field or in general), who are not skilled enough in the host country's
language for more advanced work, who want to go to a place where more professional work is not available, for those who, like me, don’t have the resources for a long-term stay but want something beyond just traveling.
A workcamp team is made up of 10 to 15 mostly young people from different countries. The organizers make it a rule not to place too many people of one nationality in any one camp. Each camp has a few co-leaders
or “animators” who, although short-term volunteers themselves, act as liaisons between the group and the host community, familiarize the other volunteers with the project, and figure out the logistics of the group life.
A Typical Workcamp
From my choices of several renovation workcamps, I was sent to St-Martin-Lès-Melle, a small village in central-western France. Our group of ten from six countries and four mother tongues was assigned
to reconstruct the ruins of an old lavoir, a stone building where villagers once congregated to wash their clothes. The council of St-Martin decided they wanted the lavoir reconstructed in the traditional style as an important part
of their heritage. Equally as important, they wanted a group of international young people to come so they could get to know them.
Most nights (when we weren't too tired after mixing cement and building walls all day) we hung out with the villagers—playing volleyball or pétanque (like bowling outside) at the town hall, attending
the fireworks show and dance on Bastille Day, or hosting an international meal at our castle. What an introduction this experience was to French culture! For the first time, I ate escargot and bantered with paysans. I knew our presence
had been much appreciated when our tough “boss,” André the mason, tearfully videotaped our last morning together in St-Martin.
Volunteers live cooperatively; together we cooked, cleaned, and socialized with each other and with the locals. My group lived in a 16th century castle, now a retirement home. We had carpeted bedrooms, hot showers,
a full kitchen, and even a microwave. However, volunteers sometimes live more rustically than this: our Irish comrade told us stories of camping in tents for weeks in the rain, bathing in lakes, cooking over a fire, and going door to
door to ask villagers to use their shower.
All in all, my group had it made: villagers loaned enough bikes for all of us, drove us to the supermarket as we needed, brought snacks for our breaks and wine, beer, cidre, and pinot for our dinners at the
castle. We were constantly invited to this or that event, and we were even interviewed for the local paper and the TV news. One member of the mayor's staff volunteered to help drive us and show us around the region. Thanks to Sam, we
spent one weekend canoeing and another camping by the ocean.
The Turks at my camp could not speak a word of French while the Belgian could not speak English, but everyone helped each other out so we all understood what was going on. Thanks to the numerous challenges of
living and working together—having to cooperate on so many different levels—we got to know and appreciate each other as individuals and as people from other countries.
After working on my French for six months among the snooty local bourgeoise fashion plates and self-absorbed students of Aix-en-Provence, I felt so gratified to be "out there" putting my language skills
to good use and really getting to know French people—not just being another American student passing through. In St-Martin, I was the only person from the western hemisphere, period.