Teachers roll up their sleeves to ensure fun summer for all


School’s out, but volunteer teachers are giving up their off-time to organise unforgettable holidays for children from difficult social backgrounds

Holidays for all

Most teachers work hard all year and, come summer, they like to get away from it all. Some, however, choose to spend their summers volunteering. They go out camping, for example, with less privileged children, offering them some time away from the labours of life.

Ivo Libens and Gerlinde Vanderstraeten are both volunteers for Pirlewiet, a Ghent-based non-profit that offers children and families who can’t afford a holiday the opportunity to get away.

The two teach at different schools and specialise in different subjects, but their motivations for volunteering are not that different.

Libens, 59, has been teaching for 40 years, mostly in special needs schools. Although he plans to retire next year, he says he won’t stop volunteering with Pirlewiet, which he joined six years ago. “I did some other volunteering before but I felt it wasn’t really what I wanted,” he says. “What I do for Pirlewiet is closer to what I know best: interacting with children who have mental conditions.”

Growing responsibilities

Initially, he helped out in the kitchen at summer camps. But the list of responsibilities quickly spread beyond the canteen. “As a special education teacher, I’ve dealt with children with physical and psychological problems,” he explains. “These children might react more aggressively to certain situations, for example.”

So the camp organisers asked him to help with children who needed to calm down. “There’s no use in getting angry at them,” he says. “I let them burst out in frustration and then they calm down and you can talk to them about anything.”

I can learn from the other camp guardians. They have different jobs and different approaches, so it broadens my perspective

- Gerlinde Vanderstraeten

Vanderstraeten, who is 39 and has two children, recognises the situation. “The children and the parents we see here are often challenged in different ways at the same time,” she says. “The children are socially excluded and are not progressing as well as others their age, while their parents might be on low incomes and often didn’t finish school themselves.”

The combination of these elements creates a challenge for the camp’s organisers. Despite the added burden, however, Vanderstraeten, who has been volunteering with Pirlewiet for 20 years, remains committed to the cause.

“It’s good for me as a teacher to look at the problems from all angles,” she says. “I can learn from the other camp guardians. They have different jobs, and by consequence different approaches, so it broadens my perspective.”

Diverse challenges

Libens points to the strong group dynamic as one of the main reasons he keeps on going. “Most of the time the volunteers come from very diverse backgrounds,” he says. “Some are young, some old; there are teachers and students.

“Sooner or later, the same question arises: why do you do it? Then you listen to each other. Everyone has a story to tell.” But the diversity can make communication challenging and result in tension. “If it works, however, the relationship you create there in only a matter of days is truly amazing.”

Vanderstraeten takes the time to ensure that the trips work out perfectly. “We have to support each other and create a strong team, so we can all rely on one another,” she says. “But you’re still dead-tired once it’s all over.”

Because she teaches primary education, she prefers to volunteer at family camps. “It’s where parents and children spend their holidays together,” she says. “But they’re not with each other all the time. I may be working with parents on something, while the kids are playing elsewhere.”

As a teacher, she mostly deals with children. “But thanks to the family camps, I get to meet the parents. It helps me to understand their challenges, and why their children react in a certain way.”

Volunteers needed

Some of the children Vanderstraeten works with, however, don’t live with their parents, but in foster homes and orphanages, adding an extra challenge to the mix.

“Once, at the end of a holiday, one of the children sneaked out of their room at night to be with their parents,” she says. “They knew the vacation was almost over and that they would be separated from their parents again.”

I tell those who have doubts to try it at least once. The experience you gain more than compensates for all the troubles

- Ivo Libens

The parents were upset at her for not allowing it to happen. “They often don’t realise how difficult it can get and that you’re giving up your free time to help them,” she says. “But of course, you don’t volunteer for gratitude.”

Both Libens and Vanderstraeten say there is a shortage of volunteers. “I tell those who have doubts to try it at least once,” says Libens. “You’ll see that the experience you gain more than compensates for all the troubles.” The idea of being able to offer a child a nice holiday, away from everyday difficulties, he adds, is rewarding enough.

He’s now getting ready to go to another camp this summer. Every year, he does about three. Vanderstraeten, who’s just had a baby, is taking a year off.  

Photo courtesy Gerlinde Vanderstraeten