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Happy 15th Birthday, VCS: Home of Volunteering

Interview with Nikola Stankoski, director of Volunteers Centre Skopje

When he left for a one-year stay in Lithuania in the summer of 2004 through the European Voluntary Service (EVS) program, 19-year-old Nikola Stankoski probably could not have imagined that it would change his life forever. The desire to discover something new, the inspiration to enable participation in European Programs for non-formal learning of young people from Macedonia, as well as the availability of opportunities to expand personal horizons, lead to the establishment of Volunteers Centre Skopje immediately after his return to the country in 2005. Fifteen years later, VCS is one of the leading NGO’s in Macedonia when it comes to youth exchange, volunteerism, activism, a recognizable brand and a trusted partner, through which over 10,000 domestic and foreign volunteers and youth activists have passed.

5th of December – International Volunteer Day, marks the 15th anniversary of VCS. That is the date when the idea of VCS was born, although it was formally registered on March 15, 2006.

“Probably crucial for the formation of VCS was my volunteering stay at the Center of Youth Voluntary Activities Deineta on various projects, but the emphasis was on the Red Cross Center for Emigration and resocialization of refugees in the Lithuanian village of Rukla, where there was people of different ages, mostly from Chechnya, Iraq and Iran. I was leaded by the desire to move forward, to break the frustrations of living in a ‘third world’ country. It was 2004, the European borders for the Macedonian citizens were not open yet, and Lithuania had just become part of the European Union. I expected to see a different world than the one I knew. And I saw, but also a double effect happened to me, because in the center I met people who came from much worse places, with more difficult destinies and sadder stories, who put their lives in a bag and set off in the hope of a better tomorrow. What I saw every day helped me mature as a person and realize that I want to help young people in Macedonia to progress, to get out of the apathy they feel, to go abroad, to strengthen their sense of belonging, to return and “to change things around them,” says Stankoski.

He was one of the few Macedonians who experienced the “EVS” program of the European Commission which in the coming years will become one of the most recognizable and favorite tool of young people around the world.

“That first generation of volunteers who went abroad, even today is active in youth life. With some of them we founded VCS. At the beginning, few people knew what “EVS” was, and many did not understand how it paid for your trip and stay in a European country, you also receive compensation, and in return you only ‘have to’ help. We worked hard and dedicated, so the interest in sending volunteers abroad, as well as receiving foreign volunteers in Macedonia was huge. In the first year, ten volunteers from abroad came to us (mostly from Lithuania, France and the Netherlands), and in the opposite direction we sent thirty young Macedonians. It was a huge promotion of our idea of building the capacity of young people on the principle of local and international experience through the principle of ‘learning by doing’,” said the head of VCS.

The first major activities of the organization were promotion through various local activities, environmental actions, humanitarian events (in 2007 the first big event was held with a concert at the ARM Home to help the children from the Home ‘October 11’), and the VCS volunteers from the very beginning assisted daily in the Daycare Centre for street children in Suto Orizari, as well as in various projects with the local self-governments, thus establishing themselves as an active actor in creating youth policies.

But the young people needed a project through which their voice would be heard, and at the same time it would unite the young people in an intercultural and multiethnic environment. This is how the idea for the creation of the youth magazine “Voices” was born in 2006.

“With the career center at the high school ‘Dr. Pance Karagjozov’ we were thinking about how to create the first project on the basis of which we will be accredited to accept volunteers from abroad or as it is called: ‘Host expression of interests’ – Hey. We wanted young journalists, activists and volunteers to quickly spread the word about breaking the stereotypes, prejudices and ethnic tensions that were active among young people at the time. That’s how we got to Voices. The magazine was briefly supported by the National Agency for Youth and Sports, and then became and is the full responsibility, obligation and satisfaction of VCS. Over the past 14 years, the magazine has grown into an extremely high quality product, in which hundreds and hundreds of young volunteers have learned to write and think like journalists, to design, to improve their language skills, to learn team work in an intercultural environment and to create public opinion.”

As Volunteers Centre Skopje developed, so did It’s influence on the creation of youth policies and processes in society to participate in the drafting of laws on volunteering, youth work, youth and youth policies…

“Unfortunately, the non-governmental sector is still not receiving the necessary support from the local and central government. There are project ideas and legal solutions, but there is no realization. As an example I will mention the Law on Youth where I was personally part of the working group where it is prescribed that each municipality is obliged to open a Youth Center which would give NGOs space where they can work with young people thus contributing to the development of local community. But the year is coming to an end, and hardly any municipality has started its task. Let’s hope that the authorities will soon realize the importance of youth activism,” said the director of VCS.

The year that is coming to the end sent the society facing serious challenges, many sectors and branches were affected, many succumbed. But, thanks to the experience and reputation gained, VCS is successfully dealing with the consequences of the crisis.

“Covid-19 has given us a chance to look back and strategically organize and orient ourselves for even greater struggle for the involvement of young people in the policies that affect them, as well as in working with European projects. Specifically in VCS, and at the time of corona – volunteers came and went, the projects did not stop, on the contrary, even in such conditions we managed to complete the KA3 project: ‘European Youth at the frontlines of active citizenship: A Roadmap towards a collective South-North- East-West Momentum’, in which five young people from Macedonia, Spain, Romania, Denmark and Cyprus each received 1,000 euros to implement their idea to change society into a better community. To work in VCS and to be part of our family means to work in a team that dedicates time to quality work with young people by building their capacity and bringing closer the European programs that are available to young people in Macedonia”, concludes Stankoski.

Goran Adamovski