Playing together, forming a community and handing out food to children in need. With these goals in mind have youth volunteers started the experiment, which gradually turned into a more and more organized program. The double story of children and adolescents on the playgrounds and beyond.
“The whole thing started as an initiative under the 72 Hours Without Compromise project (72 óra kompromisszum nélkül). Back then, we never thought it would outgrow itself and become this inspiring for all of us. It was already surprising that 20 students applied as volunteers, since adolescents are pretty hard to mobilize in their free time. Though it could be just a stereotype,” started the story Andrea Jó, dorm teacher of the Táncsics Mihály Tehetséggondozó Kollégium in Budapest.
The students from the dorm acted as a team for the first time in October 2015, as they welcomed the children with play groups, an adventure course, joint cooking and a meal on the playground of the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta on Kerék Street.
“Some of them probably came more for the good company but then got captured by the work on the playground, the children and the atmosphere. Then followed the holidays and the charity collection, and the ad hoc group turned into a community with a real mission and goal,” continued Andrea.
The group called Helping Hands has been organizing its own charity collection for years. Every year they choose a disadvantaged group, to whom they can give the presents. Last time they collected presents for the children of the residential park in Ócsa for the Saint Nicholas Day, which were then delivered to the little ones together with the team of the Budapest Malteser Youth (Budapesti Máltai Fiatalok) in personally prepared shoeboxes.
Beginning this January the playground program has kicked off with new boost with the spirited participation of the evolving community. They played board games, did creative crafting workshops, face painting, and if there was sufficient time, they even put up the bouncy castle in the playground. Besides that, they awaited the disadvantaged children with food and drinks: they prepared sandwiches, made campfire goulash together and during carnival time they baked doughnuts.
“The winter season is always tough on playgrounds. We can’t complain though, it’s gotten busy this year. The youngsters brought tons of fun and good programs,” said Edina Csidei who works as a social worker on the playground on Kerék Street.
“The children know the students by name, they look forward to them and they ask us every day when they are coming again,” told us Margó Simon, the other full-time colleague on the playground. “Some of the children who come down to the playground are disadvantaged: They open up less easily and they are more timid because of all the negative experiences. Whenever there’s trouble, the school calls a psychologist right away or calls their mom, so they think twice before telling anything to anyone. But the children open up more easily to the volunteers because of the smaller age-gap among other things, and a confidential atmosphere gradually building up between them, that becomes crucial.”
Of course there are challenges too. The unpredictability of the weather often creates new situations which need to be handled on the spot. On top of that, the organizing, recruiting and keeping the volunteers isn’t always easy either. “Not everything is going as we want it to go, sometimes it’s a bit chaotic, but I try to have a better overlook on things,” said Gergő Harangozó, one of the students’ coordinators about his own experience. “My communication skills are constantly improving and I’m getting more aware of the details and the schedule all the time. I look at things from a slightly different angle and I try to put myself more in other people’s shoes.”
Since March, the weekend program takes place at two playgrounds at the same time, which requires more young volunteers to be involved. The “hard-core” long term volunteers, led by the two student coordinators, started a new recruitment campaign: they are putting up posters in the dorm and calling on their friends. “It won’t be us who get to decide whether they’re coming or not, that depends on their own motivation. All we can do is tell them about our experiences and offer them the opportunity,” shared us their recruiting technique Alexandra Drótos.
And what has changed for the young volunteers since the beginning of the program? “The teamwork has improved a lot. At first, we were improvising for the most part but now we plan ahead for the programs,” told us the other student coordinator, Xavér Maczkó. Since the students live in the same dorm and many of them go to the same class, they spend a lot of time together and they get along well with each other.
Constantly renewing the programs for children, making them more colorful and putting the community building function at the forefront is also among further goals. The Budapest Malteser Youth (Budapesti Máltai Fiatalok) is trying to help the volunteers in the pursuit of these goals with organizing playful teambuildings and providing newly joined coordinators.
In addition, there’s a group session every month, during which occurring problems can come to surface, the young volunteers can give voice to their questions and possible group conflicts can be talked out. “I thought it was important to give the opportunity to talk about the processes that go on deep inside them, so they’re not just helping but they actually get some attention too. Let’s have a session once a month that’s all about them. And as a result, we all learn a lot about what should be changed in the project and in ourselves and how,” gave us Andrea Jó insight into the background of the talks.
Sometimes it’s good to take a break and look at the progress and the achievements. “Those came who like to help, and those remained who developed a feeling of responsibility for this work and became committed,” summarized the dorm teacher. “I believe that giving is good, and those who experience this feeling will become happier because they can move away from the problems towards the solutions. Many of the students come from difficult backgrounds themselves and they know how good it is to receive. Now they have learned how good it is to give.”
The social workers at the playground noticed many smiles and hugs that show the evolving relationship between the children and the volunteers. One of the boys from the students didn’t really know how to relate to the children at first. “Last time he got surrounded by four or five chirping little girls because he was the only one who knew a trick in some Scooby Doo game,” tells Margó Simon. “At first you could see on his face that he was shocked, but he got used to it real fast. He was the most surprised by this feeling. He’s been doing face painting for the little ones ever since. Being amongst children has changed him for the better.”
“It’s a phenomenal feeling when you see a little guy laughing, or when he asks you to fix the zipper on his jacket, since you are the older one and so you can surely make it work,” said about his own experience Gergő Harangozó. “I’m the youngest of my siblings and the age gap is pretty big. I’ve always wanted a little brother, and now I got a few.”
“I don’t think of it as community service or a compulsory program, it just feels right to come here,” said Alexandra Drótos. “We’re at school five days out of the week. This weekend program totally recuperates me, however. The children have no worries. They just come smiling, ask you to play with them and they pass this feeling on to you.”
Translated by: Katalin Tóth