Cinzia Savonitti

Cinzia with other dancers on her EVS placement

From Italy to Northern Ireland, learning to embrace a disability through mobility, volunteering and dance

In 2014, Cinzia Savonitti took the big decision to become a European Voluntary Service (EVS) volunteer through the Bryson Charitable Group, leaving her home in Italy to work at the Crescent Arts Centre, in Belfast. From one giant leap to mobility in motion; Cinzia told us about her experiences of EVS, the impact that it had on her life and her new-found passion for dance.

Mobility in motion

“My EVS placement in Belfast was a life-changing experience for many reasons and it gave me the opportunity to experience many ‘firsts’ in my life:

  • the first time living on my own in a different country;
  • the first time I experienced four seasons in one hour;
  • the first time my family wasn’t a phone call away;
  • the first time I could move freely in a busy city using public transportation;
  • the first time I had to express my feelings and emotions in a different language;
  • the first time that I really felt like a citizen of the world; and
  • the first time I realised that, yes, I can dance.

“Thanks to EVS I was able to get out of my comfort zone, learn new skills and meet amazing people, some of whom I'm lucky to call friends. Living and volunteering in Belfast, and being in contact with so many different people from all over Europe, opened my mind to new experiences, different ways of thinking, different cultures and made me feel like a European citizen. Europe is not an abstract concept anymore, but something present and 'alive', something that I was part of.”

I can honestly say that my EVS experience changed my life.

“During my EVS project, my passion for dance was born. Because of my disability I never thought I could dance, but thanks to ‘Open Arts’, an organisation that promotes professional art-related classes for people with disabilities, I met an amazing group of dancers that taught me that my crutches are not just something I need to walk but are part of me. My disability is not something that I need to hide but a chance for me to do things differently, to create and connect. Because of my disability, I always felt like physical activities were more like a chore than an enjoyable experience and in my mind they were always part of my ‘physiotherapy’, even when people close to me tried to dress them up as sport or a ‘panoramic walk’ around the block.

Dancing feels like flying, like my clumsy body has no weight, like I can do anything.

"I always accepted my disability as a fact of life, something I had to live with, something I had to minimise as much as possible. I never thought it could be something to be proud of, the reason to meet new and interesting people and a way to see problems from a different angle, something that doesn't need hiding. I never thought it could be something that made me unique and enabled me to do art in a new and interesting way. This new confidence helped me in other aspects of my life; EVS gave me the confidence to follow my dreams and made me realise that one’s passion can become a career. Thanks to my volunteering experience, I got a job at Queens University library.

EVS made me fall in love with Belfast where I now live, work, and dance. 

Mary Hegarty, of Bryson Charitable Group, was able to see the difference volunteering made for Cinzia and her family: "It really gave her freedom first of all - to be able to have that year where she was supported to live independently and travel independently, it gave her the confidence to stay on. It also gave her family the confidence to allow her to do that, to see her development and growth gave them the confidence to enable her to do that."

Bryson Charitable Group 

"One of the difficulties with EVS is that when we send volunteers they don’t always come back," jokes Mary. "But that’s also one of the joyous things of it."

Bryson Charitable Group is Northern Ireland's leading social enterprise tackling major social and economic challenges and has been involved in hosting and sending EVS volunteers since 1997. it was both a sending and co-ordinating organisation for EVS, meaning it arranged for young people to volunteer abroad as well as for volunteers to come to Northern Ireland.

People come back with a different skill set, with another language and with a different perspective, it’s really important. 

Mary spoke to us about her experience of EVS volunteers at Bryson Charitable Group and the benefits of volunteering to individuals. The filming took place at our May 2016 Learning Networks event, the year we celebrated 20 years of EVS.

International impacts

Of the volunteering placements that Bryson Charitable Group co-ordinate in Northern Ireland, many volunteers chose to stay on after their placement ended. Particularly in Belfast, where most of the placements occured, these volunteers increased the diversity and, within employment, brought with them new approaches to working.

For example, the YMCA in Bangor aimed to host a Polish EVS volunteer every year to support the black and minority ethnic (BME) community, as Poles are the largest element of that community in Bangor. The first Polish volunteer they received changed the direction of the community project, as she was the first Polish speaker to be able to directly talk to the community and figure out what the community needed rather than what the organisation thought the community needed. Within a week it was decided to change the focus of the project. The Polish volunteers who were volunteering there worked with the children of the community to maintain the cultural heritage and Polish identity, ensuring the language and cultural aspects continued.

The volunteers in Belfast have played such a strong role in the volunteering community that some have even featured on the tourist board videos, it is possible to see them as you walk into the tourist information office.

To find out more about youth experiences, visit our stories page.

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