The Coronavirus outbreak didn't stop a young Spanish volunteer making the most of her placement with The Black Box, a Belfast-based charity and leading innovative arts venue.
Iman Masfene Martinez arrived in the Belfast in October 2019, thanks to Erasmus+ funding, to support a range of projects for those with learning disabilities, who are often socially isolated. Volunteering experiences like this can now be supported by the European Solidarity Corps, which funds opportunities for young people to volunteer or work in projects in their own country or abroad, benefiting communities and people around Europe.
Despite having to return home before the end of her scheduled stay when COVID-19 swept the globe, her experience was far from over.
The team at The Black Box adapted quickly to provide online sessions and Iman has been playing a key role from Spain as her placement, coordinated by Bryson Charitable Group, a social enterprise which develops and delivers sustainable responses to social needs across Northern Ireland and beyond, has continued virtually.
Having found the opportunity on the European Solidarity Corps portal, Iman was attracted to the opportunity at The Black Box having previously worked with those with disabilities.
An enriching volunteering placement
“In my hometown, I volunteered in an association for young people with physical and mental disabilities and I considered it a fantastic experience as it helped me to open my mind, exchange different worldviews and learn more about others,” she said.
“Consequently, I chose the placement with The Black Box in Belfast because I was confident that it would strongly enrich my future studies and help me in my prospective career.”
“Our volunteers need to be creative, enthusiastic, passionate, flexible, and fun,” said Seonaid Murray, Outreach Officer at The Black Box. “Iman passed the test immediately!”
The role included supporting The Black Box team with keeping attendance, planning, and delivering workshops, as well as leading poetry sessions, thematic painting activities, film days, games days and more.
Iman took part in music performances; art workshops in Killard School, Donaghadee; tree planting in Camphill, Holywood; and over 20 Black Moon Walks in different parts of Belfast and the surrounding area. These trips would not be possible without volunteer support.
Moving to digital
Despite the coronavirus pandemic causing major disruption to their normal work, The Black Box worked hard to ensure they could move their workshops online - and Iman was committed to helping.
“It became clear that COVID-19 was very serious, our workshops would be cancelled, and Iman took the sensible decision to go home to Spain,” said Seonaid. "We discussed as a team how we thought our project could work online and decided to give it a try.
“With no break in delivery we began our Zoom workshops and haven’t looked back!
"Iman has been joining us from her home in Spain and it is brilliant for our group members and the whole staff and volunteer team to still be able to work with her from a distance.
“Iman has helped us to plan and deliver a wide range of activities with the group and put together timetables. She has led bingo sessions, visual art and painting, poetry, music and Zumba with our projects, all digitally. We keep in touch regularly through WhatsApp and team chats with the other volunteers.
“We feel good, open communication and teamwork gave us a strong grounding to still be able to work well together – even from a distance. It is a credit to Iman, The Black Box and Erasmus+ that this was able to continue.
“Most importantly, it has meant that there has been consistency for our group members in a very uncertain time. Change can be difficult for everyone but particularly for people with learning disabilities, who have a fixed routine.”
Benefits of volunteering
For both Iman and The Black Box team, getting involved in Erasmus+ has been a rewarding experience.
“Volunteering at The Black Box is a great opportunity for creating connections with others, to meet new people, share different experiences, thoughts, feelings in a creative and close atmosphere,” said Iman.
“It has been fantastic and really rewarding for me to be working with such a great team. I enjoyed meeting all the group; all of us are full of creativity, improvisation, ideas and enthusiasm to keep the sessions going. We are far from each other but, at the same time, we are all connected and united.
“The Black Box project has been valuable for both my studies and for the development of important skills such as teamwork, session planning, organisation and communication.
This has given me the opportunity to build upon my skills, share with the group and learn something different from each other every day. This project has also helped me to be more self-confident and this, as a consequence, provides a sense of accomplishment.
“Iman worked very well with all of our group members,” said Seonaid. "She is patient, thoughtful and a good listener. Many of our group members are socially isolated and it is so important to be a good communicator.
“Our projects, the group members and The Black Box as an organisation benefit hugely from the international connection, perspective, cultural exchange and the sharing of experiences that goes hand in hand with working with Erasmus+ and the European Solidarity Corps.”