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Changing lives

Harry Dhillon | 15.09.2014

Harry Dhillon describes the effects the 9th European League of Stuttering Associations (ELSA) Youth Meeting had on its delegates.

Harry Dhillon presentingIt's not very often we come across something which changes lives as beautifully and as swiftly as ELSA youth camps. This wonderful little charity does that with aplomb. It organises an intensive six-day course where young people, aged between 18 and 27 from all over Europe, come and experience transformation.

This year’s camp took place in July at a secluded facility in Heeswijk-Dinther, in the Netherlands. We had people from Iceland and Israel, Estonia and England and lots of countries in between. This totally volunteer-run organisation, led by board members Edwin Farr, Anita Blom and Richard Bourgondiën, is bursting with sheer passion, which is evident in the hundreds of man-hours spent over several months of planning, co-ordinating and organising this event. Hosting a camp in a foreign country, getting 38 people from 15 different nations and managing the financial, administrative and logistical tasks is like running a multi-national business – whilst doing a day job at the same time. Unlike a business though, the rewards are not financial. They are far more valuable. Helping others to change their lives is a deep, fulfilling and beautiful reward.

Delegates at the camp arrive feeling nervous and anxious. Some are just 18 years old. They have travelled by trains, planes, buses and bicycles to get to a remote corner of the country and have no idea what to expect. But they have one thing in common: the desire and motivation to better themselves. They have the passion and inner strength to take action. Most of them travelled alone; some had never left their countries before, and all had arrived not knowing a single other person on the camp. It might be an over-used term, but ‘pushing out of our comfort zones’ doesn’t even come close to explaining it. And within a few hours they’re playing football in the grounds, table tennis on the patio and talking endlessly at the bar. And they still have no idea what to expect. By the next morning they are doing public speaking. Later in the day they are doing drama. At midnight they’re dancing away at the bar. And within the next couple of days they open up and blossom like a flower. The change has already occurred and it’s difficult to explain it in words.

Strong friendships

Talking in pairsELSA youth camps achieve this change by hosting interactive and fun workshops where the delegates learn essential life skills. As a trainer, I had the pleasure of delivering workshops on public speaking, assertiveness and conversation skills. These are all key skills which come in handy in everyday situations. The educational workshops and practical sessions are mixed in with a strong social element; every night was party night. There was music, dancing and for the brave, karaoke too. There was impromptu entertainment with someone producing a guitar, which led to everyone singing along to a Dutch song. This year, one of the delegates spontaneously arranged to teach us an Estonian folk dance at the bar, which was a real hit. There was a day out in the countryside where we had a guided tour of a traditional windmill followed by canoeing and that ever-so quintessentially Dutch experience of riding on tandem bicycles. Of course, my legs were tired from this activity but a tasty meal, merlot wine, and a ‘I-really-shouldn’t-be-eating-this’ dessert quickly injected some energy necessary for the dance floor that evening.

During the week, the delegates make strong friendships. Social circles are expanded. Sometimes relationships are formed and new doorways are opened. The delegates arrive alone but leave with a group of international friends. They arrive unsure of themselves, but leave armed with a set of valuable tools and skills. And they have a radiant glow on their faces, coming from increased self-confidence and rapidly rising self-esteem. Plus it comes with a very positive vision of their future. Previous delegates have gone on to become board members and chairs of their national stammering associations; some of them have helped to set up youth sections; some go travelling around the world; some simply enjoy their new-found freedom from the chains of stammering. And they know one thing for sure – they will never feel alone again because they are now part of the ELSA family.

Quotes from delegates

Liat, from Israel: “I have gained so many great friends and increased my confidence because of all the amazing people who allow me to stammer freely.”

Andri, from Iceland: “I have always felt alone with my stammer, but now I feel part of something special and I feel empowered to return to Iceland to become more actively involved in my association.”

Hayley, from Wales: “I didn't know what to expect before I came to ELSA but it has met any expectations I could have had. I have met so many amazing people from all around Europe, who have their own stammering story to tell. I have felt like I have lived in a stammering world this past week and am excited to see what the results are when I go home.”

Delegates for youth meetings are chosen when ELSA invites every European national stammering association to nominate four people. If you have any questions about future meetings, contact Anita Blom at anita@stuttering.ws.

From Speaking Out Summer/Autumn 2014, p.8