Being an Elf in Finland at Christmas, or the True Story of Detelina and her EVS Project

Detelina, the Christmas elf in Finland!

Being a volunteer in a foreign country can change your life forever! This happened to Detelina who has spent several weeks in Finland and worked as … elf :). See what it is to help make such a magical project come true!

Hello! Could you please tell us a few words about yourself – where are you from, how old are you, what did you study and what do you do?

Hello! My name is Detelina, I am 27 years old. I earned my Bachelor of Engineering Design at the Technical University of Varna and soon I gonna gain Masters of Graphic Design at the New Bulgarian University of Sofia. I work as a graphic designer.

I like to spend free time with my family and friends. But what makes me really excited is travelling. Travelling is not just my hobby but a way of life full of new perspectives and opportunities to broaden my horizons. I meet new people, discover their beliefs and values, cultural similarities and differences. Whether I explore the quiet nooks in my home country or travel somewhere else in Europe, I feel a special excitement of explorer who suddenly has found a treasure. That thrill leads me to look for the new cities and countries, traditions, beliefs and lifestyles.

Have you been abroad before this project? If so, tell us about your experience.

My adventures abroad started when I was 15. To be frank, at that time I had no idea how much I could learn from one trip, how nice it could be. I didn’t realize that sitting in one place makes impossible to see the world. I’ve been to Greece, Cyprus, Romania, Macedonia, France, Germany, Great Britain, Poland, Italy, Finland…

In the beginning, I went on excursions that didn’t give me an opportunity to contact locals and their everyday lives. I was just a tourist – among many others – who made pictures of the monuments, streets and museums.

Later on, I learned about exchange projects and mobility programmes. My first adventure began quietly spontaneously and quickly. It was a great week, the volunteers were amazing and every single day was unique! I remember that experience with a smile. After this project, there were some others. And so, little by little, I finally plucked up the courage to try a voluntary project longer than one week and applied for EVS.

How did you know about the European Voluntary Service and why did you decide to apply for it?

I learned about EVS gradually, during my previous projects. In the beginning, it sounded almost mystical to me and I could hardly imagine a long-term possibility (between 2 and 12 months) to be out of Bulgaria. However, I decided that a perfect moment had come in summer 2017 till Christmas 2017. It took me a long time to find what I was looking for, at some point I even felt desperate. For months I was sending emails to different organizations hoping to find a right place at a right time.

One day I logged in Facebook and saw a unique EVS opportunity related to Christmas and even more… I was going to be an elf of Santa Claus! Yes, it sounds crazy, but I jumped out of joy! I knew I wanted to be one of two selected volunteers. Therefore I prepared  CV with a picture and nice design as it is expected to be for the future elf. I thought it will take 30-40 min but I totally dived into it and wanted to do my best. Finally, it took me 5-6 hours… When my eyes totally refused to reveal the possible mistakes and deserved a rest I sent an email with the attachments to Association FOR YOU.

I was very tense as I waited for a response. I believed I would succeed but I needed confirmation… Sometime later I received a welcome response that I was selected for that position.

Since I worked with a variety of organizations, I was pleasantly surprised at smooth communication and accuracy as well as concern for us. My sending organization was Association FOR YOU. To be precise I was in contact with Irena Derilova who prepared us (another girl, Vasilena, and me) for the upcoming voluntary service before departure, during and after mobility period. Irena made us ready for different situations, answered the questions and helped to draft all the necessary documents.

Thank you for your kind words! Tell us something about the organization you volunteered in and your tasks there. How long did you stay in Kokkola? Which aspects of your service were the most interesting? What kind of difficulties did you face?

My receiving organization – International Youth Centre Villa Elba, Finland – also was exceptionally prepared for our arrival and made an effort to make the working process easy-going, pleasant and socially meaningful.

In the beginning, the service in Kokkola, Finland, as an elf seemed to be a bit abstract but later on, it occurred that the aim is to give us the freedom to create our own ideas and put them into practice. There was an elf’s path followed by kids and our task was to create games and adapt them. The language barrier should not distract us from our mission, even though there were 4-5 years old children who spoke only their native language (You can watch the video from the elf path on this link).

Of course, the kids were accompanied by their teachers who made translation when it was necessary. There was a tree of embrace with one elf sitting there for a cuddle and a volunteer who spoke an imaginary elf’ language. The kids passed by a tree with “Hello!” signs written in different languages including Bulgarian and they tried to pronounce it. Some of the volunteers were hiding among the trees and the children had to find them. We all had the handmade costumes that everyone could adapt to him/herself in terms of colour and decorations.

Apart from the path, we spent time at school where we were dancing “elf dance” with Christmas music, drawing deer with outlined kids’ hands and having fun.  Few times we went to a nursing home where we sang songs in Finnish and English!

In the beginning, I played the role of an elf hiding among the trees, then I became a guide and led some of the groups, later on, I replaced several times a “sleeping elf” who was supposed to sit and to sleep.

I also worked on the design of our elf diplomas that were printed and distributed to schools, helped to draw deer with outlined kids’ hands and was involved in all common activities such as “elf dance” and singing at the nursery home. I was a volunteer for one month but I went through many things.  Everything was quite new to me and it was a challenge to share positive emotions with kids and adults who visited us. There were reporters who took pictures and wrote about us.

People from neighbouring cities were coming especially for the elf path, we also welcomed people with disabilities who felt so happy and satisfied after visiting our place. It was our goal – to bring people happiness, not to disappoint them.

The Elf School Diploma, designed by Detelina

This sounds truly amazing! What did you learn about yourself during the stay in Finland? Have you acquired new skills, if yes – which ones?

I realized that I am a strong person who can deal with different situations. Sometimes things don’t go as planned and you can’t foresee every single thing. But you can try to do your best at a current moment.

I learned how to plan my budget on weekly basis. I use that model even now, at home. At the beginning of the week, we define a sum of money for food and it helps to avoid unnecessary spontaneous purchases.

I lived with different people and their habits. They all were very nice to me even though I was probably quite different.

What do you think about people and culture of that country?

They don’t smile that much and show restraint which is quite different from our Balkan expressiveness. The level of crime is almost zero and people’s lives are settled. During the project due to the fire alarm’s false signal, I saw immediate reaction of the firemen and an ambulance crew. It’s so much different from Bulgaria. The schools are new, the kids take off the shoes when entering a school. Everything is kept clean and tidy. And let’s keep in mind that riding a bike in the snow is normal as well as leaving it in the public place without any control!

We know from our experience that all volunteers unavoidably face some weird and funny situations during the first days of their stay in a foreign country. Tell us about some interesting story in Finland.

On the first day, one girl and I went to the main villa and I noticed a pile of shoes next to the door. I left there mine too since didn’t want to show any disrespect. It turned out that there is no need to take off the shoes and normally you can enter canteen in the shoes. At least I had a chance to walk in my socks on a tile.

What are your plans for the future?

For now, I work on a self-realization as a graphic designer. I am looking back on the project and all the lessons, cases and situations I had there. I definitely came back as a different person. I learned a lot about myself, people around, different opportunities and the whole world. Hopefully, benefits of the project will last for a long time, even in my future which is not clear and predictable.

Only one thing is for sure – once you become an elf, it is forever!

Thank you for the great interview and we hope to motivate other young people to look for their dream project.