Belgium EVS: Jan & Feb 2018

So here we are, a long overdue update about the first few months of 2018 in Belgium. I indulged in a prolonged Christmas break which meant that I didn’t get back to Belgium until mid-January, so I didn’t feel like I had enough to write about at the end of last month to publish a post. Now I’m trying to remember everything that’s happened during the last couple of months and struggling to know where to start. Typical!

Logically I guess I should start with January 1st 2018. I saw in the new year watching the fireworks display over the Space Needle in Seattle, USA. Myself and boyfriend got on a plane a couple of days after Christmas and headed off to the emerald city to spend a week with friends. It was a great trip; not my first time in America, but my first time there since I was nine so it’s fair to say a bit different. Our friends were great hosts taking us to visit the Museum of Pop Culture and the Space Needle of course. I’m afraid we displayed an inappropriate amount of Britishness on a couple of occasions; exclaiming about portion sizes and worrying about tipping etiquette and so on. A highlight was a walking tour of Hike Place Market when a local tour guide took us to five different bars/restaurants in down town Seattle to sample some delegacies. I’d definitely recommend walking tours to blind or VI travellers when visiting somewhere new. They are a great way to get to know wherever your visiting, with the added bonus of being shown around by a local so you know they know their stuff. We contacted the guide beforehand to let him know that our group included four VI people and he couldn’t have been nicer and more helpful.

I spent another week at home after Seattle before travelling back to Belgium, but not before going to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at the Palace Theatre, London. I’ve talked about my love of live theatre before in this post and how companies like VocalEyes provide live audio description and touch tours of performances. This was also included in this performance of The Cursed Child and I can honestly say that I’ve never been to a performance with more people there for the audio description than this one. The play itself was amazing and overall it was a very nostalgic day for a long-term Potter-head like myself.

And now we finally get back to Belgium. My first week back included the second session of training for all the EVS volunteers, organised by the national association. This was a great opportunity to get together with the other volunteers again and to reflect on our progress and our expectations of our EVS projects. I found it a little hard coming back to Belgium after spending so much time at home with family and friends over Christmas, but I had a good time with other EVS volunteers and exploring Brussels a little more.

After the training it was back to work at the office. I feel more comfortable and confident in my job in the office now; I feel like I know what I’m doing and what is expected of me. I’ve been doing more of the same, helping organise local events and international projects, managing the social media and helping out with other various tasks here and there. I’ve also continued my French classes, but all be it in a new school which I much prefer. The lessons I attend now are much better suited to my current level of French and I feel more comfortable with my teacher and classmates. It just goes to show that if something doesn’t work, it won’t get better unless you do something about it.

Otherwise, I’ve managed to get a bit more active by joining a walking group and a Torball club, and I’ve even given blind football a go. For those who don’t know, Torball is somewhat similar to Goalball which is far more prevalent in the UK, but with a few minor changes to the rules. I’m enjoying playing but also enjoying the social side of training as well.

I’ve also done a little more travelling this side of the new year. I spent a weekend in Amsterdam a couple of weeks ago and am heading off for a couple of days in Paris tomorrow. I’m joined on both these trips by my boyfriend, but I am hoping to get in some solo trips to visit different friends in various places very soon. Germany is on my bucket list, as well as Bruges and Ghent in Belgium. My discounted Belgian travel card arrived in January which makes travel much easier (cheaper) and the assistance system works much the same as in the UK; you book your travel assistance online or over the phone and all being well you should have no problems.

The obligatory Jazzy update is very positive. She very much enjoyed her holiday at my mum’s house while I was in America, but she was happy enough to get back into the harness on my return. She seems very settled and comfortable here in Belgium now, even if she is still bemused whenever we get into a car on the wrong side. I’m pretty sure she finds our excursions to new places very exciting if the increased speed and wagging tail is anything to go by. With the combination of my selection of navigation apps and her intuition, we manage to get around pretty successfully most of the time, so I don’t worry about heading off and exploring new cities. Plus, the puppy-dog-eyes come in very useful if we’re trying to get someone’s attention to give us a hand 😉

It’s a bit of a strange time right now because even though I’m only half way through my project I have to start thinking and planning for afterwards by applying for graduate schemes and internships and so on. In other news I’m still trying to get used to people greeting me with kisses instead of a handshake; I think I’ve gotten better at not cringing away when someone lunges at me with pursed lips, but I can’t say it’s something I’ve yet mastered. I also think I’ve stumbled on a really innovative way of making friends; a few times now I’ve been wandering around looking a bit confused when I’ve momentarily lost my Barings, when someone lovely has offered to help, and we’ve ended up swapping contact details and keeping in touch. Maybe not the most conventional way of meeting people but so far, it’s worked.

And I suppose that’s it for this instalment of the EVS diaries. It’s a fairly busy month ahead in work, my birthday is coming up and I have a trip back to the UK planned for mid-March, so stay tuned for further updates.

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Belgium EVS November 2017

It’s definitely on its way to feeling like Christmas here. As well as the weather turning bitter, (I actually think it might rain more in Belgium than it does in Wales), the city is gearing up to the holidays in a big way. Jazzy and I have come to accept that the landscape of the city centre changes pretty much daily in the run up to Christmas, with new obstacles in the form of stalls and chalets appearing every day. The market will eventually span three market squares, more than living up to its reputation as the biggest Christmas market in Europe.

Apart from the Christmas market, Liege also holds a weekly market every Sunday on the river. You can find everything from fresh produce, to hand made clothes, to pets at La Bat. There’s a great atmosphere, even if it’s drizzling, and there’s a long-held tradition of grabbing a beer after doing your shopping, so what’s not to love?

What I also found out recently is the differences between Christmas traditions here compared with back home. Even though Santa still brings gifts for children on Christmas eve, much more importance is placed on Saint Nicholas. He also brings presents to children who have been good throughout the year on the night of the 5th of December and Saint Nicholas’s feast is celebrated on the 6th. In the run, up to Saint Nicholas’s eve, children leave their shoes by the door where they might find small gifts or sweets left inside during the night, and on the night of the 5th they generally leave some food out for Saint Nicholas and a carrot for his horse, However, any children who haven’t behaved during the last year could expect a visit from Saint Nicholas’s alter-ego, who only leaves Cole for naughty children and is sometimes called Whip father.

While the city is busy preparing for the festive season I’ve been settling into something of a routine at work. I mentioned in my previous blog that my main project for EVS is working for an international association for visually impaired people managing their communication. I’ve been able to sink my teeth into this in the last few weeks, writing content for their newsletter and social media about our recent events. I’ve also been pushed out of my comfort zone a little when I’ve been asked to take very active roles in events. For example, I was put in charge of ice-breakers for an intercultural, intergenerational training course we ran last week. It was much harder than I initially expected, finding activities suitable for the groups diverse needs, but I gave it a go and it wasn’t entirely awful.

I’ve also somewhat started my second project, which is working at a youth centre for refugees once a week. This has proved a little tricky initially because so many of the kids and young people are genuinely terrified of Jazzy. The multicultural nature of the youth clubs means that not everyone is aware of guide dogs and have very different views about dogs in general. Because of this, my first few weeks volunteering at the youth clubs have been mainly focused on getting them used to me and Jazzy and letting them get more comfortable with being around us. It’s challenging, but really rewarding when someone manages to overcome their fear.

I feel like my progress in French has stalled a little recently; I’ve missed some of my regular lessons because of work commitments and if I’m honest my enthusiasm has lessened as the lessons have gotten harder. Never the less it’s an essential part of living here so I soldier on and try not to cringe too much at my appalling conjugation.

I grew increasingly worried about Jazzy at the beginning of the month when she seemed to be more and more distracted and generally ineffective when working. I reached out to the local guide dogs school, who were amazing in meeting me and giving me lots of helpful pointers about Jaz. It’s easy for me to forget how sensitive she is sometimes because she’s generally so relaxed, especially when it comes to her sensitivity to my behaviour. The experience only reminded me again how important it is for me to be aware of my own feelings and behaviours, if for nothing else so that I can be mindful of how my state an affect Jazzy. I’m really glad to say that with a bit of reassurance and a lot of encouragement, she is back to her usual cheeky self-swaggering around town like top dog.

Unfortunately, my Italian housemate decided to leave the programme at the beginning of November; she was struggling to adjust to living away from home and wasn’t happy in the situation. It was a shame but not a surprise if I’m honest. Since then, myself and my remaining French flatmate have continued living together in companionable harmony. We aren’t close, but we live together very comfortably which I’m really grateful for.

Overall the last month has been a little more challenging as the honey-moon phase of excitement wares off. My boyfriend visited for a long weekend which was wonderful, but did make me feel a bit moor homesick afterwards. I’m also still really keen to improve my social network as much as I can. It’s a little tricky because of the language barrier, but I’m hopeful that as my French improves so will my social life.

I have also invested some time into finding some way to be active regularly. I visited a local horse-riding school which seemed promising at first, but unfortunately it seemed that the sight of me standing there with my white cane made the ‘blind’ word all too real and they didn’t want the responsibility of me riding at their school. It’s not like this kind of thing is exclusive to Belgium, but didn’t make it any more fun to experience. Thankfully I have a lead on another school that seem much more promising and that I’ll hopefully visit in the next couple of weeks, so keeping fingers crossed for now.

Later this week I’ll be returning to the UK for the first time since I moved to Belgium. I’m going home to attend the final development day of the Change100 programme I completed during the summer. I have to admit that I’m looking forward to being back in London again and specially to reuniting with my fellow Change100 interns and colleagues. I’m sure trying to get through Kings Cross at rush hour will soon burst my romanticised bubble though, no doubt of that. Other than heading home for a few days the next last few weeks of the year are set to be pretty busy as we hold two dinners in the dark, awareness raising events that involve diners trying to eat a three-course meal in complete darkness, and I’m also attending the European Day of Persons with Disabilities conference in Brussels. By far the most terrifying prospect of the next few weeks though is the fact that I somehow volunteered to make mince pies for my French class as part of our multicultural end of term Christmas dinner. Here’s hoping I don’t give everyone food poisoning in the process!

Change100 – Half Way Through!

Two years ago, I was having lunch with a friend in a small café in Voxel and practically turning green with envy. Why? Because she was telling me all about what it was like living and working in central London.
London has always been the dream. That and NYC are at the top of my bucket list of places I want to live in one day, so to be sitting across one of my friends who was living out that dream right then, I could think of nothing cooler. I remember spending the whole journey on my way to see her fantasising about the amazing stories she would tell me about all the places she had been, the people she had met and the things she had done. I don’t think she realised at the time how very inspired I was. So much so that I even wrote down the name of the internship programme that she’d gotten this opportunity through in my phone.

Fast-forward to last week when I met up with the same friend, again in central London, only this time I was the intern. After writing that note in my phone that day in Voxel, I applied for the Change100 Programme earlier this year and was accepted onto the scheme. This is how I came to be working in central London months after I graduated – a dream come true.

Change100

The Change100 Programme is an internship scheme for disabled students and graduates. Their aim is to change the employment landscape for students and graduates with disabilities or long-term health conditions, by offering them paid work experience tailored for their interests and needs. The scheme is run by Leonard Cheshire Disability, a UK charity supporting disabled people in the UK and around the world to fulfil their potential and live the lives they choose. The programme runs for a total of six months, including a three-month internship and three months afterwards when you will receive ongoing support and mentoring.

The application process is designed to give applicants as much experience as possible, while also giving the support and guidance needed for applicants with disabilities. You are required to submit an application, much like a job application, which if accepted will mean that you are invited to an assessment centre. At an assessment day, you are asked to give a short pre-prepared presentation, take part in a group problem solving activity and attend a formal interview. If you are successful at the assessment centre you are accepted onto the programme, which is when the Change100 team will proceed to try to find you the perfect work placement.
They try to match up your skills, interests and preferences with a bank of internship placements available that have already been submitted to them by employers all over the country. When they think they’ve found you the right fit, they offer the employers to chance to choose an applicant from the programme. This is when you are then told that you’ve been selected by an employer and are given the details of your internship. Its then up to you to negotiate with your employer things like start dates and any adjustments you might want to ask for before starting your placement. The Change100 team also present a disability awareness briefing to your employer, if you are happy for them to do so.
As part of the programme you are given a contact within the Change100 team which you can turn to for any support or advice you might need during your internship, and you’re also invited to attend peer development days once a month which include workshops on topics like managing your disability in the workplace. You are also assigned a mentor within your employer organisation who is there to be your point of contact within the workplace during your placement, as well as providing ongoing support after your placement has finished.

My experience

For the last few weeks, I have been interning at a charitable organisation based in central London working within their conference and programmes team as an assistant. My role is to support the team in organising and running their biggest event of the year, their annual three-day conference. I have been having the best time! My colleagues within the team and the wider organisation have been incredibly welcoming and respectful and I feel like I am getting really valuable experience, I could not have asked for a better placement.

I found the Change100 recruitment process largely positive, only encountering a couple of accessibility issues that the team were happy to work with me to resolve. It’s been such a valuable opportunity for me to practice interview skills and attending an assessment centre, as well as the actual experience of being in a workplace. I am glad I took the chance to push myself out of my comfort zone, completely relocating for the internship and joining an organisation that I knew almost nothing about before I started. I am also working in a field that I had no previous experience in, so that has been a learning curve and interesting as well. The whole programme has been challenging but massively rewarding so far and I am only half way through!

I have found the peer development days really beneficial in terms of receiving support during the internship, as well as getting the chance to meet the other interns on the programme. It just so happens that I found a fellow intern who is doing her placement within an organisation two buildings away from me, so we now meet up for lunch every week to catch up and chat through how our respective placements are going.
I am also benefiting a lot from the mentoring aspect of the programme. Change100 recommend your mentor be someone who is not a directly a member of your team, so that you can have a point of contact within the organisation but who is separate from your immediate day-to-day. Your mentor will also continue supporting you after you’ve finished your placement, doing things like providing career advice or contacts that might be useful for you to get where you want to be. I’m personally finding it really helpful having someone at work who I know I can turn to with questions, but who isn’t a part of my actual team, and I’m also learning a lot from my mentor about how to achieve my personal ambitions and goals when it comes to work.

I would absolutely recommend the Change100 Programme to any students and graduates with disabilities. We all know how difficult it is to find employment these days, without the added barrio of having a disability to content with as well. So any work experience you can get to demonstrate your skills is going to be hugely beneficial, because it will be something you can refer back to in future applications and interviews to demonstrate to prospective employers your capabilities and strengths. That’s what I’m hoping anyway!

I will be writing future posts on my experience applying for Access to Work, the government funded scheme intended to support disabled people in employment, and look out for a Dog Blog coming up all about Jazzy’s perspective getting to grips with our commute.