Olivia arrived in October 2020 from Sweden to join our “European Solidarity Voices” project in Ciampino, Italy, volunteering for our partners of Associazione Il Chicco who run a community with people with disabilities. She stayed one year, supporting the staff with artistic workshops (such as ceramics, music, theatre…), sport activities, recreational activities games, walks, visits…), and she enjoyed the company of people with disabilities, watching a film, having a chat, sharing daily life activities.

The project was funded by the European Commission through the European Solidarity Corps programme and the Italian Agency for Youth.

This is her story!

Hello! My name is Olivia. I am now 21 years old and I come from Sweden. I graduated high school in 2020 and was unsure of what I wanted to do after that. I started my life as an adult, I guess you can say, working in a factory during the summer and then I reached out to the organisation in my hometown and asked if it was possible to go on a project despite the ongoing pandemic. My mentor then recommended Italy, which I have never been to, and sent me the information about the project. I read it, became interested in it and signed up. It all happened in a span of four weeks and then I was on my way to a new and exciting country.

It has been almost 6 months since I got back home to Sweden after spending one year in Italy. Just “spending one year in Italy” isn’t really enough to describe my time abroad. I lived and worked in a community in Ciampino, just south of Rome, with adults with disabilities. The community is called “Il Chicco” which means the bean/grain. This community hosts adults all year around and even has a daily centre to which people come during the day. In my house we lived 8 ragazzi (“guys” as we call the adults in the community), two assistants, me and another volunteer from Poland who arrived at the same time as me.

I arrived without any knowledge of the country, without knowing more words in Italian than “pizza” and “pasta” and with very little travel experience. My fear of not knowing my surroundings and not knowing what was expected of me disappeared as the community greeted me with open arms. The guys were very curious about who this blonde, Swedish girl was and asked me a lot of questions right away to which I was not able to respond because of the lack of a common language. Time passed in the community. I got to know amazing people, learned the language and got into their routines and where I was most helpful in the daily work of the assistants. In the beginning everything was new and I was so angry with the language from time to time. “Is it really this impossible?” I remember thinking to myself as I sat in my room studying. I can assure you that it was hard but not impossible because at the end I actually spoke Italian!

Throughout this whole year, this long time of thousands of experiences I felt free. I also felt trusted, needed and loved by the community. Even when I spent time outside of the organisation, they were always just one phone call away if I needed help. This made my stay comfortable knowing that they cared about me too. I wasn’t just a worker, I was their volunteer, “Zia Svezia” (aunt Sweden).

In October 2021 I left Italy and all of my friends. I would lie to you if I said that it was easy. Checking in my bag at the airport I think of it as writing the last words in the book and then closing it as the plane left the Italian ground. I relived every moment of my trip as I reread my book before giving it away for publishing; the midsummer celebration, all of the birthday parties, every evening spent in Rome with an aperitivo in my hand and the sun in my face, all of the wonderful people and their smiles and all of the activities and time spent together with the guys in the house and in the community. 

I also remembered all of the trips I had time to do in my free time and during my vacation such as seeing Florence, Pisa, Sicily, Napoli, the Amalfi coast, Bologna and Venice. All of the great food eaten, the ice creams bought and the inviting locals I also thought about. 

It was truly one of the best years of my life so far. Continuing on the metaphor; when the book gets published I can read about and relive all of the moments again and the more I think about them, the more I realise how this experience has made me grow as a person.

It takes time to understand how an event, for example, changes your way of thinking or doing because in the moment you change unconsciously and then you keep reacting like that without putting an extra thought into it until you stop and ask yourself why you do what you do. One of those changes has been my patience. I knew that it wasn’t my best trait when I started the project but it has definitely gotten better! I also learned a lot about Italian culture during this year thanks to the assistants who shared their stories and to the trips around the country where I got to meet different lifestyles in different regions. This has now made me more curious, than I was before, about other people’s cultures and routines in life. I have also gotten inspired by the guys whom I lived with. Their kindness towards a stranger like me made me want to be more open and helpful towards other people from other places and situations. I’ve also gotten more confident in travelling alone which has made me believe in myself more than I did before. Also because I did this whole year by myself and succeeded in getting to know people, getting comfortable in my new situation and learned from other people because I knew that they could learn from me too.

I could write about this all day but I will stop here and just say a few finishing words for the ones who are still a bit unsure whether or not they should go on a project like this. From my experience I take home a lot of pictures and memories, friendships with colleagues and volunteers that I will have with me for a lifetime, a new language and knowledge of another culture and another perspective of the world. It can be hard though and I ask you to prepare yourself for the challenge and just keep your mind open. It will help you a lot! Also, I want to encourage you to be yourself and to do the most of your time. I know it sounds cliche but it is what motivated me during the year. The organisation was happy with my help, they were thankful for the time I’d spent with them and the people liked me for who I was. 

I will always remember my time spent in Italy. I can’t wait to go on another project and yes, I want to go back to Italy again some day as well! And this bean “Il Chicco” I see more as a full grown tree now. 

Best regards 

Olivia Bergström, Sweden

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