Making Waves: Youth Voluntarism in Hungary

For the past year, WKCD has worked with the Foundation for Democratic Youth (DIA) in Hungary to document the work of its youth volunteers, organized in teams across the country. Each team designs and carries out one or more projects that build community spirit and compassion. In the spring of ’09, WKCD will publish a book with DIA that showcases the efforts of these dedicated youth. Here we present two examples.

The Factory

as told by youth volunteers Barnabás (Bubu) Gulyás, Felicia Sebøk, László
Felföldi, and project coordinator Henrietta Lehner

MISKOLC, HUNGARY—They say Miskolc has more legends than any other city in Hungary. Hungary’s first king made his castle here. We have the biggest main street in Europe, the second biggest Jewish population in Hungary, one of the oldest universities. The first rock concert in Eastern Europe took place in Miskolc in 1973. During the Soviet Era, Miskolc was an industrial center with many factories that made steel, glass, and guns. After the Communist split, we became the leader in abandoned factories, ghosts from the past.

As youth, we are creating a new legend, our own legend. With the help of city government and other groups, we have taken this enormous factory block, once a site for ironworks, and helped transform it into a center for sports and youth activities.

We began with extreme sports like skateboarding, paintball, unicycling, and wall climbing. Each sport has its own space, a different section of the old factory block that was once like a small city. The climbing wall is one of the biggest in Europe; it was built with money obtained from the European Union. We have the only waterproof cycling track in Hungary. Then we added music and arts—a place for bands to play, a recording studio, mural painting. We have festivals for young people across the city to enjoy. And we have our office here, where we train youth volunteers, sixty or seventy next year if our application for financial support is accepted.

One visitor told us that “The Factory” might be the largest youth center in the world.

It is not just our size that makes us proud, though, or the number of sports and activities and festivals. Our best accomplishment, we say, is that we are a youth-led youth center. We decide on the activities and how the space is used. Empty, dirty, broken rooms still fill the factory block and we have dreams for all of them. We do the cleaning, the painting, and a lot of the construction, the renewing. It is a hard job with no end. Sometimes we cut a hand or feel like we cannot sweep another floor.

Many of our friends think we are crazy to work long hours as volunteers and not get anything for it, but they are wrong. We are developing our personalities and our creativity, through informal learning about ourselves and about life itself. We are getting used to real life, with no mother or father to help us, where we solve our own problems, on our own or with the help of friends. When we have a festival, which takes weeks of preparation and then staying awake for 48 hours, we learn how to take care of each other, to support each other so that everyone is at their best. We have built up our own community.

We wish more youth knew about The Factory and that even more youth would come. But we are outside the city center and the journey here is long. People consider this a dangerous part of Miskolc, with too many abandoned buildings and street criminals. The leadership of the city should do something about these conditions. We do our best, but our group is far too small to push the big changes that are needed.

Still, our program has built a steady partnership between city elders and youth. For several years, the Miskolc City Council met in the room across from our office—quite a contrast, with its chandeliers and polished wood tables the length of the wall! They could witness the connection between youth development and sports, youth development and the arts. In this old city of legends, our generation is making a new path.

Celebration Masters


as told by youth volunteers Attila Bereczki, Laura Bródi, Mátyás Solymosi, Nikolett
Nyak, Tímea Árva and project coordinator Zsuzsanna Tündik

DEBRECEN, HUNGARY—Student Spring. Youth Day. Challenge Day. International Youth Exchange. For six months of each year, we arrange events for the youth of Debrecen. “Of the students, by the students, for the students,” we say. We are master organizers—and celebrators.

Take the Student Spring, which begins with an official opening ceremony in March and includes a formal ball in April and sports competitions through June around the city. Preparations start in January, with training in communication, fundraising, event planning and logistics, and teamwork. We plan the opening ceremony down to every detail. This spring we built a flower gate outside the city’s Cultural Center, where the ceremony would take place; we passed out leaflets about the program, and those who stopped placed flowers in the gate. Our Sports Day brought 800 youth, 50 teams, 30 city organizations, and 3 schools together to compete in football, basketball, volleyball, and handball. It snowed in the afternoon, but the matches did not stop. Everyone who participated left a winner, taking home trophies, certificates, books, and chocolate.

For Youth Day this past year, we created a playhouse at the Cultural Center, and over 300 children came with their families. We made a special invitation to the Home for Disabled Children in Debrecen, hosting an informal ball for them later in the afternoon with musicians and dancers. The best part was watching the children from the home sing, dance, and perform on their own.

For the European Union’s International Youth Exchange, we did all the setting up: sending out letters and emails to recruit student participants, and helping organize the qualifying rounds and the final debate competition. Youth from France, Bosnia, Romania, and Hungary came this year to debate whether Romania should join the European Union.

It’s strange to think about the city of Debrecen sixty years ago, in our grandparents’ time. World War II left half the city destroyed, its parks discarded, and its population—young and old—silenced. Today, life fills the streets and buildings and parks, and we believe we are part of this change.

Some of our friends think we are mad to put in the hours, planning, and running around, the rounding up and cleaning up that goes into an event like Student Spring.  “You don’t get paid?” they ask with disbelief. But we get paid with lessons we can’t find elsewhere, like these:

    • Every problem has more than one solution. You need others to help you see and appreciate the alternatives.

    • To grow, you have to cross boundaries. That could mean organizing events in six parts of the city, or apologizing after a mistake and working to correct it.

    • You can’t stop the rain (or snow). Sometimes, you’ll cancel an event at the last minute; other times, you’ll carry on. Hair dryers can dry a wet t-shirt, but they can’t save a cell phone that’s fallen in a puddle.

    • If you’re invited to speak in front of a group, do prepare remarks in advance.

    • When you are appointed to a leadership position, it shows that both those above you and those below you trust you.

    • It’s a large task to decide what to do with your life, when all you’ve been is a student or a daughter or son. It’s hard to grow into an adult when you haven’t taken on real-world responsibilities. Volunteering gives you that chance.

    • To keep their lives on track, young people need something besides school: a cause beyond themselves.

    • In a world that may be losing its values, raising a generation of valuable and value-filled young people deserves its own celebration.


Kids on the Wire

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“There’s a radical—and wonderful—new idea here… that all children could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people’s ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world.”

– Deborah Meier, educator