Let’s start with a brief presentation of ASKELS. How everything started?
Lilly: Aksels started in 2012, from a group of friends that gathered together. We worked in different places and we were involved in different projects, mostly in big cities. We thought that it wasn’t fair when people said that youngsters should go to big cities, such as Sofia, in order to have success, and we wanted to create something for those who cannot, also because we come from small places. So we created our association in the Bulgarian village of Meshtitsa (Pernik Municipality).
What is your mission and what are the activities you do related to it?
Lilly: Our mission is to provide opportunities for young people and younger generations to learn and develop themselves in all fields. Another important part of our mission is to keep our traditions alive and strengthen the bridge between generations, because there is a generational gap in our way of living. We try to involve people and to transfer their knowledge and skills to younger generations.
Actually, this is happening in the context of “Surva” -the International Festival of the Masquerade Games held in Pernik region-, where the tradition of Surova is transferred from generation to generation. And this tradition is not only kept alive, but also reinvented with the creativity of young people. We are a relatively young organization and at the moment we are not supporting directly the Surva Fest with activities, but we want to develop in this area. At a local level, groups are supported mainly by the Chitalishte (Community Centre) and what we do about them is to publish pictures and videos on our social media and disseminate information to promote these rituals.
We also started to participate in a cross-border project between Bulgaria and Serbia, we made a survey in this cross-border region about the old crafts that still exist in the local villages, and published a catalog with the people that we interviewed. Our Serbian partner started also an international cross-border crafts festival -the first one was held in Niš in 2014- and for 3 years has been supported by one of the local municipalities in Serbia. And last year, for the first time, we had an extra edition that happened in Pernik. We invited craftsmen to show their products and we organized demonstrations and workshops where people could participate to learn crafts with these masters.
Another initiative that we are proud of is the Herbs Festival, which our organization started 5 years ago. We organize it in the village of Mladen, situated in the center of Bulgaria, in July to keep alive the tradition of collecting herbs and the healthy lifestyle, to transfer this knowledge to younger generations and to provide opportunities for the development of small places like Mladen. The ritual of collecting herbs, that you have to do completely in silence, is connected with one legend: if you collect the herbs during the sunrise of the Enyovden, the summer solstice day, and then dance Horo, they will be very powerful. During the first edition we had only local volunteers, but in the second one we participate in the European Voluntary Service programme. EVS is a chance not only to provide our own young people with opportunities, but also to invite here European youngsters and show them how beautiful Bulgaria is.
What does “good practice” mean to you? Can you give us an example of it based on your experience?
illy: “Good practice is a practice that produces good results. For us, it is the one that brings together different generations and uses or combines the skills and knowledge of the older generations to inspire the younger generations, who are able to pick up this know-how quite easily and to use it to produce something unique, with their creativity and personal touch. It’s a mutual process and can happen also backwards.
Actually, we are very proud of our volunteers -Patrizia (Austria), Beata (Estonia), Grzegorz (Poland) and Francesco (Italy)- and the project in which they participated. I think we created a wonderful team, where everyone has a different function and leads different actions and activities. They did a fantastic job, with a great motivation. Everybody knew what to do and for what they were here. Of course there were hard times, but together we overcame these. We are almost in the end of our project “Clean Up!” that aims to produce a strategy to prevent local people in Meshtitsa from polluting the river Meshtishka with their trash. Our volunteers worked in the river, cleaned a part of the area and created a “free of waste” zone. I think they inspired local people to start thinking that there must be something not good in their behaviour and slowly locals started to put the trash in containers. We also had great events where local people were involved, like cleaning days and tree-planting initiatives, where we unite efforts to plant 80 trees in one day and renew the green ring of the village. Another good result is that our project even inspired other people to create their own NGO. You know that the most difficult part is to change people’s mind, so I really think that our volunteers are heroes. Young generations can really influence the behaviour and the way of thinking of older generations.
What do you wish the youth and the volunteers around the world?
Lilly: It’s great to be young, so just dream and live your EVS fully. Different youth have different desires and different purpose for their EVS period. Before joining the project, they have to think what they want and what will be nice for them to do. EVS is a great challenge and you have to think about this challenge beforehand. About what can make you happy, even if is quite different from your lifestyle and background.