Meet Paola, our project leader of “Petites Soeurs des Pauvres.” You can find her every Wednesday at Petites Soeurs des Pauvres helping at the kitchen and interacting with the elderly.
“Before coming here I didn’t even know where Belgium was,” she says while laughing. “Now this is like my second house, I have a lot of friends and I do a lot of activities like volunteering.” Paola is from Italy, but she came to Belgium 5 years ago when she won a scholarship with ‘Master dei Talenti.’ She has been working with an NGO called European Federation for Intercultural Learning (EFIL) which deals with education in matters of intercultural exchange programs for high school students. Paola studied languages at University: English, French, and German. She remarks that the scholarship she won wasn’t related to her studies, but with her experience abroad. Nowadays she feels that 5 years living in Belgium is enough and that it is time to go back home and do something there. Paola doesn’t know yet what will come after her experience in Belgium, but meanwhile she keeps on helping the sisters as long as she is here.
How did you get in contact with STC?
Nowadays I am working for the European Commission. Some years ago we had a volunteer day and through that, I got to know Serve the City. When I had a look at the projects I knew I wanted to do something with the elderly people, or with kids; but I also found very interesting the prospect of volunteering to teach English to the refugees. In the end, I came across Petites Soeurs des Pauvres, and decided to volunteer with the elderly.
What does volunteer work mean to you?
For me volunteering is giving a meaning to the busy life you have in the city. It is changing perspective. When you get here you forget about your life troubles/worries and you start to see it from a different point of view. In my case, I get to see life from the perspective of the elderly. Some of them are alone and don’t have relatives, others are poor or they have a deadly sickness. It is important to keep a connection with them, with people who are going through completely different realities.
What inspired you to start volunteering?
Firstly because I have time, so why not using it in a meaningful way in addition to just doing sports and meeting up with friends? And secondly, because I wanted to be in touch with the elderly. If it wasn’t for STC I wouldn’t have many opportunities to interact with them because they usually stay in elderly homes.
What did you learn about volunteering?
It isn’t that much of what you give but what you receive. This might be taking for granted but it is actually true. As volunteer, you are giving them the service you are doing, your smile or just your presence but actually is them who give back more. They thank you all the time and they show that they remember you. Whenever I leave this service I feel lighter and regenerated. After three years volunteering at Petites Soeurs des Pauvres I know everyone around here and I feel loved. Here I have a second family.
Do you remember a special interaction you have had with someone while volunteering?
Three years ago I got close with a 95-year-old Italian man. After his wife passed away he didn’t come down to the dining room, so every Wednesday after the service I would go to his room with others . We usually spend a lot of time together and he shared with us everything about his life, his memories, and teachings from his life experiences. This is the best memory I take from this place.
He had a really good soul. One of the teachings I recall was about the love story he had which lasted 70 years. He met his wife when they were in their 20’s and they stayed together until she passed away. He told us that we too could meet our life partner, the love of our lives. He always reminded us not to give up, and not to lose hope in true love.
What would say to someone considering to do volunteer work?
It is simpler than you might think. Sometimes we are scared that we are not able to do it, that we aren’t good enough or that we will fail in communicating because we don’t speak the language. But in fact, it is really easy; there is really nothing to lose, but only to gain. Every time I see a new volunteer coming they immediately feel welcome by the sisters and by the elderly who are always smiling at them.
Something else you would want to share?
This is a really good example of an elderly home. First of all, they are being taken care of really well and secondly, they are not sitting passively on the chair because here they play an active role. The sisters genuinely love them and they create a beautiful sense of community. According to their strengths, the elderly can take part in activities like cleaning, and tiding up. But also they have a beautiful program with activities such as sports, dance, sewing, and preparing handcrafts. Every time I bring new volunteers here they tell me that, if they have to, they wish to end up in a place like this when they grow old.