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Brexit question mark on future for Tool for Self Reliance charity's European volunteers

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Currently at Netley Marsh are (from left) Lilian Steinmetz from Germany, Erik Schmidt from Austria and Yvonne Hoffmann, also from Austria
Currently at Netley Marsh are (from left) Lilian Steinmetz from Germany, Erik Schmidt from Austria and Yvonne Hoffmann, also from Austria

THE future of a programme that brings young European volunteers to work at a New Forest charity helping people in Africa could be put at risk by Brexit.

For 20 years Tools for Self Reliance has been hosting the EU-funded placements at its Netley Marsh headquarters helping people develop their own livelihoods .

However, the charity’s European volunteers co-ordinator Jo Shannon said it had proved difficult to get information about the possible effects on the programme of the UK’s departure from the EU.

“The biggest challenge for us will be having to wait until 29th March to see how we will be viewed with regard to access to funding,” she said.

Each year, up to four young people have joined the team on a life-enriching 12-month placement as part of the EU Solidarity Corps exchange programme, formerly Erasmus+, to learn a broad range of practical tools-based skills.

For this they are working alongside the team of daily workshop volunteers, totalling 130 a week at Netley Marsh, to refurbish tools and pack them into kits, ready to be shipped to vocational training projects in Africa to provide people with the skills they need to set up their own business.

As well as technical training in trades such as carpentry, welding, and bricklaying, the charity also provides business and financial management support.

Currently at Netley Marsh are Lilian Steinmetz from Germany, and Erik Schmidt and Yvonne Hoffmann, both from Austria.

Up until now, with Britain in the EU, the funding for the volunteers – generally taking a year’s break from their education – has covered their flights, accommodation and weekly allowance, as well as some organisational costs.

Jo said: “The volunteers here now are secure because their funding is guaranteed for their year, which finishes in August, but we will have to wait and see what happens next.”

With a small staff team and a UK-wide network of 750 volunteers, the charity works with African organisations to deliver a programme of vocational training, life skills, and practical equipment to bring about effective and sustainable change to tradespeople and their communities, primarily in Ghana, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Zambia.

Great and lasting friendships have been formed over the years between the daily and European volunteers, who have enjoyed the opportunity to work and socialise with people from different generations.

Both young and older volunteers love the opportunity to share their skills and time with each other, enjoying bowls, curry nights and archery to name a few of the many social activities outside of the workshop.

After their placement, the European volunteers return home with greater self-confidence, a breadth of practical skills and knowledge, improved English language skills and new friendships.

But the benefits are mutual, as Jo explained: “They have been adding a European dimension, bringing diversity within our organisation and a natural transfer of skills. For example, a couple of Austrian volunteers helped an English volunteer who wanted to brush up on schoolboy German.”

Jim, a long-standing workshop volunteer, said: “It’s good to interact with young people and have a laugh and joke. Their enthusiasm is infectious.”

Last year, one 19-year-old joined the local barbershop choir, Ocean Harmony, who meet for their weekly practice at Colbury Memorial Hall. One of his highlights was joining his new friends to perform on stage at the National Barbershop Convention in Harrogate.

Whatever else happens with Brexit, the overseas work will continue.

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