Since 2005, SEEDS has been bringing international volunteers to Iceland for an opportunity to enhance the environment and broaden their inter-cultural learning. Mica Allan learned how one small organization is making a big impact on both urban and rural Iceland.
With three full-time staff and five interns working in the office, phones are busy, volunteers are coming and going, and there’s a blend of purpose, passion and principles in this lively, little office. On one wall is a vast global map and it is amazing to think that each year volunteers come from over 55 different countries to be a SEEDS’ volunteer in urban and rural Iceland.
Oscar Uscategui, who oversees the organization, and Anna Lúdvíksdóttir, a project manager, tell me of SEEDS’ journey. It started with the germ of an idea in 2005—yes, there will be appropriate plant metaphors throughout this article! Then, 150 volunteers worked on 14 different projects throughout Iceland during the summer of 2006. Five years later, SEEDS has truly blossomed and now welcomes over 1,000 volunteers per year who work on 100 different projects, all year round.
The organization’s role is chameleon-like. Champions of beautifying downtown streets that scream out for a bit of love, volunteers can be seen painting and cleaning buildings in downtown Reykjavík. They also attend to the minutiae of urban features that often go unnoticed but that are no less important—cleaning up parking meters and electricity boxes and mending fences. Lúdvíksdóttir calls this work ‘active citizenship’and she tells me laughingly that such is SEEDS’ reputation at urban face-lifting that private residents have been known to phone and ask if they could come and redecorate their home, too. For the record, this kind of service falls outside their remit!
Cultivation and Culture
SEEDS are custodians of conservation and environmental issues and there is a flourishing choice of activities for the international volunteer: reforestation, erosion control, coastline maintenance, planting trees, protecting national parks, and creating walking and cycling trails, to name but a few. Local business development and marketing drives also see volunteers handing out waffles and chocolates in downtown Reykjavík—always a favorite with the locals.
Then there are community projects working with people with disabilities in tandem with The Red Cross, and cultural projects that develop events for Reykjavík’s culture night and The Reykjavik International Film Festival. Among their current projects is a photographic exhibition, organized in conjunction with Gay Pride. Volunteers, who took part in SEEDS’ annual ‘Photomarathon’ course, were then asked to submit photographs under the theme ‘Eyesland – Colors of Reykjavík.’ The result marks the fifth photographic exhibition that volunteers have put on, expressing how they view Iceland.
No stranger to partnership working, SEEDS works closely with the City of Reykjavík, specifically the Environmental Department, the Sports and Recreation Department and the Department of Public Works. It also works alongside anti-whaling campaigns and is part of an international network made up of over 100 similar organizations.
As I said, phones are always busy. The main focus of SEEDS’ work, however, is its volunteers. Uscategui and Lúdvíksdóttir tell me that its volunteers not only give to the Icelandic community but also gain from learning so much about themselves in the process. One truly authentic project involves a group of volunteers not only repairing a traditional turf house but actually living in it at the same time. Rural projects are also sometimes based in very remote areas, for example an area of the West Fjords where only one satellite phone exists and in certain locations volunteers have had to hunt for their own food.
A volunteer experience also enhances intercultural learning. International evenings are a common feature of every project where volunteers learn from one another and from the local Icelandic community, with many Icelanders extending a warm welcome into their homes. Uscategui explains that in small, rural communities the entire village often comes to meet and greet at these events.
Volunteers of all age
So what is a typical volunteer like and why do they come to Iceland? Broadly speaking volunteers are between 20 and 30, however, SEEDS considers applications for anyone between the ages of 16 and 99, with the oldest volunteer to date being 67. Consequently, such criteria attract a wide range of individuals; those seeking adventure or experience for their resume, credits for a related University course or those who are unemployed or retired.
Uscategui says that in addition to giving a lot, volunteers also learn much from each other. Most volunteer groups are a mixed bag of ages and this dynamic works well, he explains. Lúdvíksdóttir adds that this can be a valuable experience for a young person. She describes how volunteers often develop in terms of confidence and decision making and that it opens up their thinking and they might look at an older volunteer in the group and think “When I’m 60, I want to be like that.” One such example is of a senior volunteer whose grown up children came to visit him and saw an entirely different side to their father. Subsequently, Lúdvíksdóttir explains that it can be a bonding experience for many and that they’ve had instances of father and son or mother and daughter who have come to volunteer together.
Such is the popularity of volunteering for SEEDS that two initiatives cultivate volunteers from both ends of the spectrum. With the support of the European Union, Youth in Action, aimed at young people, and SEVEN-Grundtvig, aimed at seniors over 50, individuals can apply for grants that cover 90-100% of volunteer costs. For the individual footing the bill themselves, the fee for participating on a standard two week project is between 80-200 Euros plus the cost of travelling to the project site.
This fee covers a volunteer's food and accommodation and all necessary administration. There are also some nice little extras thrown into the mix, including sea fishing, whale watching and access to thermal swimming pools and hot pots, all for free. So at the end of a hard day’s work, a swim and a soak in one of Iceland’s glorious outdoor pools awaits.
All this makes for a potentially transformative experience. Lúdvíksdóttir tells me how when volunteers arrive they are excited about using their volunteering opportunity to help find answers to some of life’s big questions. Fast forward to the end of their experience and volunteers often feel that they have even more questions and options than before. A two-week project can snowball into successive projects and SEEDS currently has 35 long-term volunteers, who come to Reykjavík for a few days to rest before heading out on the next project. Clearly, some people fall in love with Iceland and the volunteering bug is infectious. It’s possible to succumb to this bug, Colombian born Uscategui tells me, having come to Iceland to volunteer—eight years ago.
A Local Touch
As a matter of fact, SEEDS also offers Icelanders the opportunity to volunteer in their home country. “We are always happy to mix Icelanders with the groups as they give the atmosphere a local touch. We have hosted some Icelanders in our projects and we have also had Icelandic leaders. We would of course like to see more people interested in volunteering in their own backyard as there is so much work to be done in the Icelandic nature,” Lúdvíksdóttir explains. “Volunteering in your own country can also be a step forward for young people, to get experience and gain confidence in travelling abroad to do voluntary work.”
After six years growth, SEEDS is thriving. With a structured leadership training program in place for project leaders and a mentoring system linking new volunteers with former volunteers, it’s heartening to know it’s the kind of organization that ensures individuals’ needs and skills are supported as they give their time and effort.
So next time you see someone painting a building, constructing a path or maintaining a playground in an Icelandic community, do what more and more locals are doing: stop and say hello. I’m told SEEDS volunteers love it when this happens.
For more information about SEEDS or volunteering opportunities, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.