‘Job Through The Art’ experience
I have to admit I ended up with the Erasmus+ project unexpectedly. I woke up to a Whatsapp message one fine morning: if I’d like to join a friend in Lithuania in September? ‘Sure,’ I told her; ‘what are we going to do there?’
‘It has to do with art and meeting different cultures,’ was the reply. ‘And entrepreneurship!’ My excitement dimmed a little. I’m no entrepreneur – what on earth had I just agreed to go do in Lithuania?
By the time we dragged our suitcases to the hotel entrance, I didn’t feel an awful lot wiser. Sure, I had done my homework and I knew what we were there to do, but despite the extensive communication I’d had with project members beforehand, I had never met any of the participants in real life – my friend had fallen ill the night before and had to stay behind. Dinner was a culture shock to all of our starving stomachs: the food was great, but the appetizer proved to be the main course. Lunch is the primary meal in Lithuania. We shared a look with one another, nodding in conspiracy: that evening we would undertake an epic quest for sustenance. We took a taxi to Klaipeda and tried all potato-based Lithuanian delicacies our stomachs could hold. As the unceasing rain battered the restaurant roof we laughed, joked, shared, danced, ordered yet another drink, and somewhere in the process, we bonded. We hadn’t even started the project yet, and already it could hardly get any better.
When the real project started and we got to meet the participants from other countries, the spirits stayed as high as they had on the first night. The language barrier was surprisingly easily vanquished – in a safe environment, most participants quickly overcame their shyness, and communicated in broken English, with hands and feet, even by enthusiastically teaching one another words in Greek, Italian, Dutch and Lithuanian. As we went on excursions, learned about Lithuanian culture, presented our own countries and practiced our soft skills within the programme activities, we gathered useful ideas, profiting from the experience of the other groups. Though each group of course had, and still has to face the challenges and opportunities that are unique their respective countries, we realised we weren’t all that different from one another, no matter our varying ages, nationalities, backgrounds and whether or not we had special needs, and we became a closely knit group. In the evenings, after the project activities, participants of all nationalities spontaneously congregated in the dining room to play games, share a snack, work on drawings or make music – many of the participants are true artists, and many of the types of craftsmanship I learned about were not even originally included in the programme.
Naturally, a programme so stuffed with activities and information caused problems as well. Some of the participants had difficulties with the great amount of physical exercise and suffered from exhaustion, while others grew mentally tired and stressed. The entire group responded with an astounding amount of understanding, kindness and flexibility to the difficulties of each individual, and a helping hand or supporting shoulder was never far off, which only strengthened the team’s interpersonal bonding. Almost every day there were a few hours in the middle of the day which the participants could use to rest, and I never faced any complaints for using every last scrap of that time to escape the hotel and discover the stunning natural surroundings of Klaipeda. Instead of judging me for abandoning the group, people were eager to see the pictures I had taken and the curious items I had picked up in places that were too far to reach on foot for many of the other participants – my need for peace and quiet had become a valuable asset rather than a liability. Even though I had come into the project without any knowledge of what we were going to do, at the end of the ten days I had found many more ways to be useful, for example by translating for others and by presenting on Dutch art history. I had no previous attachment to the group whatsoever, not even any prior experience in working with people with special needs, and yet, before the end of ten days I had transformed from an individual into a valuable member of a community.
For this reason I conclude that, besides the activities and presentations, the group dynamic itself might have been the most valuable part of the project. All participants have learned to express themselves across barriers, making friends for life along the way. Many of us, like me, must have had the experience of learning that the very thing that makes them unique can be what makes them useful, with the added confidence that they can make things work, if only they are given the right chance in a stimulating environment.