Volunteering in Vaalijala

Vaalijala is a rehabilition centre situated in Nenonpelto. Spanish Sara Paniagua Vázquez worked there as an EVS volunteer for ten moths starting from August 2014.

Hi Sara! How did you end up volunteering in Vaalijala?

Two years ago, I was volunteering at an organization called Secretariado Gitano, where I taught Spanish to a gypsy community, individually and mainly to adults. They were usually Spanish or Romanian. One day, at a meeting with my colleagues, the coordinator told us about European Voluntary Service. It was the first time that I heard about it and I thought it sounded interesting.

“I was always interested in volunteering and had never gone abroad to work, so I thought, why not take the advantage to do both things at the same time?”

I was always interested in volunteering and had never gone abroad to work, so I thought, why not take the advantage to do both things at the same time? It would be an excellent opportunity. I talked to my family and I convinced myself that it would be a good experience, so I got in touch with my sending organization to inform me what I had to do. Since then, I started to send emails to the projects that sounded interesting to me. I applied for several organizations around the world, particularly Finland, as I was deeply interested in it. I was looking for something related to education and children with special educational needs in the provided database. It was a long process. One day, I received a letter from Vaalijala asking me for an interview via Skype. After a few days, I received news that I was selected. I was very happy.

What kind of knowledge did you have on this field of work?

I studied special education and I did my university practices in a specific special educational school. There I worked with students with autistic and mentally disability, aged between 12–16 years old. It was my first experience in this field. It felt a bit strange. That was the experience that I needed as I had related educational background, but even more, it was an experience for me to understand how to behave myself with people with special needs.

Afterwards, I took different courses and I started to volunteer in different associations to get more experience. I am passionate about this field. I like to read and to be informed more about people with special needs. I always keep trying to develop my skills in education. I have dealt with different disordered people, whereas I have never dealt with children having behavioural problems. I experienced that while I was in Vaalijala school. While working there I have enriched my knowledge in working with different disabilities and dealing with difficult, stressful situations.

Which were your tasks in Vaalijala?

I was working at Rainbow school, which is a special school located in Vaalijala Rehabilitation Centre. Rainbow school offers education for handicap children (both mental and physical). There are about 60 students in 8 different groups. I was working in one of those groups; called “Rantala” where there was students with behaviour disorders and autism. My main duties were to help the students in the daily activities and assist them to study different subjects such as math, biology or English. Almost every student would come to the school with their personal assistant, so usually I helped the one who had no support person and was attending school alone. To work with the students was comfortable and easy.

“I was in charge of the arts and crafts lessons. This part I really liked. I had to find ideas linked with the necessities of the pupils and also ideas that would keep them motivated and get them to participate”

Also, I was in charge of the arts and crafts lessons. This part I really liked. I had to find ideas linked with the necessities of the pupils and also ideas that would keep them motivated and get them to participate. Of course, another task was to aid and support the teacher in different settings. I loved to work there and take part in everything they do. There was a good atmosphere between workers and I had a good connection with the students. Sometimes the day at school could be difficult, because of the breakdowns of the children.

Two times per week I worked in another sector of Vaalijala called Vaahtera. It was like my second work place that was totally different from the school. We worked there with adults having mental and motor problems. The majority of them could not speak, so we did manipulative activities such as puzzles or we worked with what we called “work boxes”. It was useful for improving motoric skills. Also, we tried to improve their sensorial skills with different activities, e.g. using smells and objects that improve their sensorial feelings.

What kind of things did you learn?

I think during those ten months, I learned a lot. I learned many things logically, connected with Finnish language as Finnish language was spoken in my workplace every day. I spoke English with teachers and other employees, but with students I had to communicate in Finnish. Of course, I improved my English and I’m happy for that, considering that it was one of my objectives. As for the culture I learned many things, that made me want to know more and more, and I liked to compare it with the Spanish culture.Working styles of the Finnish Rehabilitation centres are quite different from Spain: even settings of the building and workers. I found out new things about myself, my possibilities and skills. I realized that I can actually do more things than I believed.

“I found out new things about myself, my possibilities and skills. I realized that I can actually do more things than I believed.”

What was the most rewarding and challenging in your work days?

Some people ask me why I am a teacher of special education. The answer is that I love to teach children with special needs, even if they are more challenging and emotionally on a harder level, but I am happy after lessons. I think I helped the students and for them I was important. Those small steps were huge achievements for them. For me, communication is important. It was challenging for me every day, as I was surrounded by people who spoke a language entirely different from mine, and I need to guess what was going on.

What skills did you need?

In this work you should be and passionate and compassionate. You must be aware and attentive. You must be dedicated to work with students. You have to be flexible and able to think of a variety of learning styles and to individualize instructions for children in your class. A special education teacher may also need an unlimited supply of patience, since he/she can find students who require a long time to perform their duties or achieve their objectives. The communication and cooperation between professionals are essential skills for any teacher, but especially for a special education teacher.

Has volunteering in Vaalijala affected your future plans?

My mother, being a teacher, is sure that this experience was great for me and helpful for my future and I agree with her. It is difficult to find a job nowadays in Spain, but I think that it is more difficult in the area of education. There are many teachers and only a few workplaces for us, so this experience is a supportive step for my career development and for finding a proper job. Not only in the professional area, but also in my personal life. I think that it has helped me grow as a person and it has helped me understand what I want in my life.

Your greetings for those thinking of volunteering in Finland?

Volunteering in Finland was a great experience, full of positive and new things that I recommend to everyone. It is a challenging, but you can learn a lot for your personal and professional development.

In the photo: ”Helping with maths. She was a student who I supported”, Sara tells.

The interview has been published in the magazine MaailmanVaihtoa – Volunteers’ Voices 3/2015.

Sara participated in Finland in the European Voluntary Service (EVS). Maailmanvaihto receives EVS volunteers for volunteer periods of 6–12 months. Would you be interested in participating? Read more about the EVS and apply!