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Work for Peace

Workcamps Maintain Tradition from WWI

For good-hearted paupers, workcamps offer an attractive alternative to volunteer projects requiring large amounts of time and money. “The typical ‘Third World program’ covers everything from inoculations to airfare, but it can cost as much as $4,000 for a month-long program,” says Peter Coldwell, founder of Volunteers for Peace (www.vfp.org) (VFP), in Belmont, VT. The largest of three U.S. organizations linking volunteers to workcamps, VFP has placed well over 10,000 Americans abroad since 1982.

VFP’s small program fee of $500 per camp covers organizational expenses. “I still can’t believe that for [such a fee] I lived, ate, played, and worked in a remote village in central France in the heart of a valley summer,” said Angela Kolter, a former VFP volunteer.

Worldwide, roughly 150 organizations coordinate more than 2,600 projects. Each group places volunteers abroad in exchange for receiving foreign volunteers into its domestic programs. By virtue of a body-for-body swap, money never needs to change hands between groups. Any local organization—be it a church, arts group, or state park branch—can coordinate a camp to help with a community project. The local host group provides everything from tools to leaders, often with financial support from the community and government.

The work varies widely from site to site. A group may excavate a medieval Jewish necropolis in Spain, plant mango trees in Thailand, or set up a summer music festival in Norway. Projects often involve the environment, arts, social services, archeology, construction, and historic preservation. Volunteers may sleep in a school, church, private home, community center, or even a tent. Some groups cook and clean for themselves; others eat meals donated by a local family or restaurant. Most camps arrange evening and weekend excursions to local attractions, whether a city cultural tour or a trip to a national park.

Workcamps are for a mature audience only, Coldwell cautions. Volunteers must make their own travel arrangements and inform themselves about their host countries. Because camp conditions vary so widely, volunteers must come with an open mind as well as an open heart.

“None of us realized we would be giving 100 percent for 14 hours a day, yet we loved it,” said Sandy Stefanowicz, who volunteered with a children’s program in Ireland.

Work Not War

Workcamps originated with Pierre Ceresole, a Swiss pacifist and Quaker. In 1920 Ceresole led a small international team in reconstructing a French village destroyed during World War I. He hoped that such projects would provide an alternative to military service.

Ceresole’s efforts evolved into Service Civil International (SCI), a volunteer service organization that now has 80 countries worldwide. SCI’s volunteer-run U.S. branch sends about hundreds of Americans abroad each year, according to Traudi Krausser, volunteer coordinator.

Workcamps are well established in Western Europe, where service projects have continued since Ceresole’s postwar effort. The region is now saturated with workcamps—several hundred in Germany alone. European camps often recruit unemployed youth to help organize projects, Krausser said.

In the 1980s VFP concentrated on exchanges across the Iron Curtain. Today, not only Eastern and Central Europe but developing nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America abound with new projects, according to Coldwell. Several countries hosting camps, such as Azerbaijan, Israel, and Northern Ireland, face political turmoil that can lead to violence. Volunteers in these areas sign up at their own risk.

“We rely on information from our partners. If a country’s residents feel an area is safe, that’s what we tell our volunteers,” explained Coldwell.

“Here was this place so devastated and destroyed and yet the people were the most beautiful I ever met,” said Hau Truong, a volunteer in Bosnia. “They seemed more real to me, unspoiled by the things we take for granted in the West.”

A Transforming Experience

Ultimately, volunteers get back much more than the time and tiny amount of money they give. By working, living, and playing with people from a variety of countries and cultures, volunteers transcend a country’s tourist facade and transform their own sense of the world.

“People cared enough to travel around the world to help a small town called Allemont,” said Patrick Nolen of his camp in France. “Through our experiences, we created a magic that penetrated the boundaries not only of our minds but also our countries.”

Molli Grant, who volunteered in the Czech Republic, summed it up: “When representatives from 10 different countries get together and hold hands and pitchforks for two weeks, I call that peace. Mission accomplished.”