My journey in the UK – how I turned this year around

It’s been almost 14 months since I left my safe haven in Belgium and moved all across the world (well yeah, I had to cross some water…) to volunteer with the British Red Cross for a year. A full 12 months. That’s a long time. Or so it seemed. And felt at some points too to be honest.

As a newly graduated psychologist I was struggling the find a job I loved and was sufficient to sustain myself. In the midst of my frustration and despair (some exaggeration there) I signed up to become and international volunteer with the British Red Cross. I mean, what could go wrong?

flash forward: a 25 year old living with two 18 year old guys in the middle of nowhere with no peers around. No mode of transport to reach civilization and no work once we finally (pro tip: don’t rely on public transport in the UK) arrived at the job.

I’m exaggerating, again. While those were the actual circumstances, it wasn’t all that bad.

But it could have been.

This year I’ve learned how to turn situations around, stand my ground and make the best out of pretty shitty circumstances. So what did I do?

After two months in picturesque (read as: there’s literally nothing there) Prestatyn it became clear that this year wouldn’t be the way I imagined. I had this idea of supporting people, making a difference and sharing my knowledge as a psychologist. On the side I expected to travel the area, go on hikes every other week and mingle with the Welsh population. Basically I expected to have the time of my life.

Reality check: trains are expensive and volunteering doesn’t provide you with a wealth of money. Public transport is irregular, always late and very limited during the weekends. That’s right, the moments we had some free time. The weather sucks, people keep mostly to themselves and going to a pub quiz or the gym doesn’t instantly provide you with friendships for life. Or even a decent conversation. The pub quizzes being about British culture didn’t help either. Yes, we came in last. Twice. While we were eager to go out and support service users, they kind of forgot that we need a car because most people live in the sticks and going by bus would take hours or was just plainly impossible. A great mix of circumstances that created the perfect situation to be lonely and miserable indeed.

And so I was for a little while. But I didn’t quit my job, leave my boyfriend and my cats to sit inside all day, feeling useless and unneeded. Together with my roommates we decided to ask for change. We talked to our managers at work and were very clear that we wanted to see service users. That’s what we came for after all. We looked for people living in the area and I even got a rental car in the end. We searched for training opportunities and workshops within and outside of the British Red Cross. We got trained in First Aid for adults and children. I went to multiple seminars and to a Mental Health First Aid course, twice. I also grabbed every chance I could get to learn and meet people in the field. I signed up for every event that sparked my attention. In January I learned that you could become a volunteer representative, so I did. I became the link between volunteers within my service all across Wales and the management and higher up levels within the organization. I went on to become part of the Youth Leadership Team, representing the interests of all young volunteers across the country. These positions made it possible for me to travel all across the UK and even cross borders to Ireland and Italy. I even got to see the Queen (for about a second) when attending a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace. I’m sure not a lot of people can say that.

What about the living situation though? My roommates and I pushed the team that put us in Prestatyn to reassess this decision and drastically change our situation. After six months we packed our bags and moved across the border to Chester, England. While I loved saying I lived in Wales, trading the country side for a small city was the best decision that could have been made. Meeting people and making friends was still a challenge but at least there was stuff to do. I would go for walks around the city walls multiple times a week, would go hula-hoop and Zumba in the gym next to our place and attend open mic and live music nights regularly. Crazy thing, there were parties sometimes too! In the end I even managed to make a decent friend, just in time for me to leave again.

What about living with two 18-year old boys from a different country? It really wasn’t all that hard. I got lucky that I got along really well with one of them and we would find each other in our love for nature, music, vegetarian/vegan food and deep, long talks. I also was lucky that my friends from back home came to visit regularly and I connected with some other volunteers from the program. Sure, there were some frustrations and we definitely could have handled the awkward situations better. But isn’t that really how we move through life constantly?

In conclusion: this year wasn’t easy. I didn’t enjoy every second or even every day or week of it. There were moments when I thought about giving up, packing my bags and moving back home. Am I happy I didn’t? Definitely. Life isn’t just a succession of high after high after high. Life has ups and downs. It’s what we do with the hard times that counts and we probably learn more from these than when it’s all just puppies and butterflies. Sure it feels like shit in the moment but looking back, it’s definitely worth it. So I would advice anyone who wants to volunteer or have an international experience to go for it. It won’t be pretty all the time but it will definitely change you for the better.

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