Young people come from all over the world each year to the Greenhill YMCA, an outdoor centre tucked away in Northern Ireland at the foot of the Slieve Donard Mountain.
Whether they’re on a gap year or looking to learn new skills, dozens of young volunteers apply each year to be a part of Greenhill. As the YMCA Ireland national outdoor centre, Greenhill offers a spectacular setting of mountains, forest and sea.
The Greenhill YMCA welcomes young adults to run year-round and summer programmes. The newest group arrived in January, and the volunteers come from Brazil, South Korea, Malawi, Germany, and more.
“Greenhill has had international volunteers since the 1970s, and it’s a fantastic experience for them and our staff”, said Alejandra Arcila, the Greenhill Marketing and Communications officer in charge of volunteers. “All our programmes are youth-led. We hold them for organised groups such as schools, churches, youth and community groups during the year, and we bring in additional volunteers for our summer Adventure Camps”.
With the opportunity to make lifelong friends, learn new skills and inspire young people, volunteers say they cherish the memories they make.
Said Gabriela Ferreira, a volunteer from Brazil, “To be a Greenhill YMCA Volunteer is life-changing.”
Becoming a volunteer
To ensure enough time for interviews, obtaining visas and more, Greenhill works about six months in advance. Alejandra said there are generally about 18-20 year-round volunteers and another 12 during the summer. Volunteers pay for airfare and visa expenses. Greenhill takes care of the rest.
“From the moment they step into the UK, we look after them”, she said. “We pick them up at the airport, and bring them to Greenhill, where they stay in a big house we own. They have everything they need, and it’s only a 5-minute walk into town”.
Volunteers receive 65 pounds each week to cover food and personal expenses. Partnerships with local charities and supermarkets ensure very little of that weekly stipend is needed for food. In addition, the year-round volunteers receive a bonus of 500 pounds at the end of their term. “It’s our way of saying thank you to them for spending a year of their life with us”, Alejandra said.
Learning new skills
While some volunteers come to learn administrative, housekeeping, maintenance or other skills, the outdoor programme is a popular draw.
“We have had volunteers who are really into the outdoors and are thinking about making it a career”, Alejandra said. “We just started a new trainee programme for those interested in becoming certified outdoor instructors”.
Greenhill also provides opportunities for personal development, driving tests and English tests for those looking to improve their language skills. And volunteers are welcome to bring their talents into the programmes.
“We’ve had artistic volunteers, for example, and we’ve been able to do arts and crafts”, she said. “And we love volunteers who can introduce us to new camp songs”!
Implementing Vision 2030
In 2022, YMCA Ireland adopted YMCA Vision 2030 into its strategic plan, and Alejandra said the Movement’s collective mission and vision guide their work.
“When we look at this programme, it really fits into Community Wellbeing”, Alejandra said of the first Pillar of Vision 2030. “Our work falls into two areas: We have our volunteers and we have the 10,000 users we serve each year. What we do contributes to the physical and mental health and overall wellbeing of both groups”.
When looking to launch new ventures, Vision 2030 informs the planning. “We live in such a privileged place, with our rivers and nature, and we want to preserve that”, she said. “To do that, we’re starting a forest classroom. We’re mindful of the work we need to do for a Sustainable Planet”, she said of the third Vision 2030 pillar.
Making lifelong friends
Each January, the permanent staff is excited to meet the new volunteers. At the same time, it’s hard to say goodbye to the young people they got to know over the year.
“You build relationships, and it can be heartbreaking to see them go”, Alejandra said. “What’s amazing, though, is how many of them stay in touch through social media. And on our Facebook, every time we upload pictures from the older intakes, it’s so popular.
“We have so many people who volunteered in the 1990s who want to connect since social media wasn’t a thing then. We have staff members who have been here 20 or 30 years and they remember every single person”.
So cherished is their experience, many volunteers often return much later. One man who had volunteered 30-plus years ago, for instance, recently visited with his wife and sons.
“He wanted to show them the place. He kept walking around the house saying, ‘this is where I did this, and where I did that’ ”, she said. “And he was looking for a staff member who was here when he was. They found each other, and it was so heart-warming”.
To maintain these connections, Greenhill plans to establish a volunteer network. “At some point, we want to have an in-person reunion”, Alejandra said. “We love our volunteers. We couldn’t run our YMCA without them”