April 20-22, 35 YES and A-SMYLE alumni from Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia joined millions of volunteers from 106 countries around the world in celebrating Global Youth Service Day by taking part in an Alumni Conference organized in Macedonia by American Councils – an event that has become an annual GYSD tradition in the region and a unique opportunity for alumni from participating countries to build friendships while learning about one another’s countries, cultures and languages.
This year’s conference, “Just Do It!”, was designed to show alumni that it is possible to realize community projects with little or no funding using the expertise of staff and the experiences and passion of alumni who have successfully organized community projects to educate and inspire alumni who are hoping to organize their own community projects for the first time.
Alumni say: “I like that everyone had an opportunity to ask questions and share their views and experiences.”
Alumni Say: “I loved volunteering, not only because it was significant for the families and the society, but also because it proved we were actually capable of doing it...I think it presented some important points on team work, human and group capability, and dedication."
Large Group Sessions used alumni panels, role-plays, group discussions, and advice from experienced American Councils staff to introduce or reinforce concepts including organizing projects with little or no outside funding, mobilizing one’s community, partnering with local organizations and institutions, understanding what scale of project to try for, organizing fundraisers and donation drives, and making projects sustainable.
Alumni say: “What I liked the most is the alumni sharing their personal experience; that helped the most since they know exactly what kind of problems we can encounter, and those actually were the problems I encountered while writing my project.”
Breakout Sessions were an opportunity for alumni to choose the types of projects they were most interested in – Environmental, English Teaching, Seminars and Conferences, or Ongoing Activities. Then, guided by Alumni Coordinators and Alumni “Facilitators” who already had extensive experience in successfully organizing projects in each area, alumni worked in small groups to come up with project ideas, steps needed to organize a project, and a list of general “best practices”.
The weekend also included a “Small Grant Activity”, which was an opportunity for alumni to develop their ideas for community projects and write small grant proposals to support them, with American Councils staff and alumni experienced in writing successful proposals on hand to offer advice and feedback. At the end of the weekend, proposals for 18 projects – several of them involving international cooperation between alumni from multiple countries – had been completed. One project was selected to receive funding on the spot. The rest of the alumni had the opportunity to receive additional feedback from American Councils staff and to re-submit their proposals by email.
Helping to put the finishing touches on a Habitat for Humanity build site in Veles, Macedonia was the favorite part of the weekend for many alumni. The site will provide low-cost, quality housing for dozens of families in need. Despite being faced with some challenging tasks, alumni worked together to complete every project assigned to them, impressing even the Habitat staff, and reminding themselves how much fun it can be to volunteer.
Alumni responses to the seminar overall were extremely positive. One alum reflected, “I believe that the conference fulfilled its purpose and that we learned a lot, not just about the topics that were presented there but about cooperation and breaking the borders and limits through teamwork. I got a lot of ideas for future projects and have already discussed some with alumni from other countries!”