Portugal: A Place to Make a Difference, One Smile at a Time

Nestled along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, Portugal invites volunteers to explore its rich history, gorgeous architecture, and breathtaking landscapes while making a meaningful difference in the lives of the local community. What makes this country truly special, however, is the hospitable and friendly culture that radiates through a simple smile and a “cafezinho.” Immersing yourself in the volunteer culture of Portugal can be a life-changing opportunity if you want to gain a deeper appreciation for the world around you. 

For the past month, I have been constantly reminded of my personal growth from volunteering in Águeda, a quaint little town just an hour away from the vibrant city of Porto. Each day is a new adventure, as I am privileged to share my home with volunteers from Hungary, Belgium, and Turkey. My work alongside people from Finland, Austria, Romania, and Croatia (the list goes on) added excitement and growth as we learned about our diverse cultures and backgrounds. Have you tried fruit soup, pasta with potatoes, or chocolate toast? This is what having international housemates means: cultural shocks never end, and you get a new world vision. 

Exploring different cultures has always been a dream of mine, and my experience in Portugal so far is genuinely unique. The Portuguese culture and mindset feel incredibly familiar and close to my own, and I feel like I’m slowly but surely immersing myself in the local way of life. The small-town atmosphere means that life moves more leisurely, and a quick train ride takes me to the Atlantic coast. Besides, Portugal being a relatively small country, makes it easy to travel and experience new places without breaking the bank or sacrificing time.

“What is your biggest cultural shock here?” people usually ask. Well, other Europeans typically point out the relaxed Portuguese pace of life. Coming from the Balkans, I am not shocked by the lack of punctuality or the culture of drinking coffee with friends daily. The most significant difference I find is seeing orange and lemon trees everywhere. What I cherish the most is the opportunity to be part of our diverse, united European community of volunteers. 
Now that you’ve added Portugal to your bucket list let’s talk about something more meaningful than just “visiting”: volunteering! 

Have you considered putting your heart and soul into helping a community on the other side of Europe? Well, this is what the ESC projects help you accomplish. It has been only a month, yet I’ve participated in different educational, ecological, intercultural, and event-driven activities within the Youth Center of Águeda. As one of the most vital values of volunteering is non-formal education, we’ve focused on workshops promoting diversity, creativity, and a sense of entrepreneurship among young people. From organizing English classes for the locals to implementing school sessions dedicated to important historical and social topics, we contribute to youngsters’ education and empowerment. We also try to bring a little joy to the elderly of Águeda by having sessions called “School of life” with retired locals who share their inspiring life stories and learn more about our cultures. Feeling like part of a big family while being far from home is, without a doubt, one of the most rewarding experiences. Last but not least, for those passionate about ecology, there are plenty of opportunities to contribute to preserving the forests in Portugal, which is a high priority for the local community. Finally, I am excited to see the results of our work for the Carnival, an important event in the region, as well as the interculturality sessions and the language-exchange activities. 

Even though I have just started my volunteering journey in Portugal, I already see its transformative power. This one-month experience has inspired me to pursue personal growth and self-discovery, and I can’t wait to find out where this path leads in the future! I highly recommend that everyone takes the opportunity to volunteer at least once in their lifetime.

Andrijana Smiljkovska

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