Interview with Roberta Lo Bianco Head of the Mobility Department at CESIE
by Boyka Boneva
Roberta Lo Bianco is the Head of the Mobility Department at CESIE in Palermo. She was more than kind prompting to share with us her vast experience in the field of volunteerism and specifically the European Voluntary Service.
Having spent some time with you now, I can say that you enjoy your job. I have also noticed that often you mix it with free time and sometimes with your personal life. Is my observation right? How do you manage this kind of life?
Yes. I used to and still do this a lot; especially in the beginning I was living and working this way even more intensively. Now that I am a mother and Viola has appeared, I have limited this kind of mix and the line between my professional and personal life is more visible. But, of course, when you are curious to meet people from different countries and cultures, to learn about them and to know more for them as personalities, then it is really easy to establish a relationship. Then, this relationship acquires a life of its own and requires its own time.
For the volunteers that we host, for long years I have been a point of reference, so one can say that my role is really an important one. I learned that trying to find the balance. In cases when I was coming too close to them (this has happened at times), my role was “upset”. When I was not able to keep the proper distance, our relationship always suffered in a way.
And of course, there are many opportunities and ways to learn… to learn how to do your job properly.
How do you manage to be both tough and friendly with so many new people?
It is not a good idea to let them see you as a friend and only, because they are NOT your friends and they are not here to become friends of yours, at least in the duration of their service. They are here first and foremost to learn, to explore, to develop their own skills and personality in general, to discover new cultures, new languages, new people, new obligations, new way of life; in fact, to discover a whole new world, so they are here for so many different things, but becoming friends with the person who is in charge of them is not on the list. Your role as such is to guide them on their way, to help them see things differently. So, in this process you also need to learn how to do all this and always to become better in doing it.
Currently CESIE hosts 23 EVS volunteers. About the volunteers you have met so far: do you maintain relationships after the end of the porgramme? Do you have a favourite one?
So far, CESIE has hosted more than 200 volunteers. I am proud to say that I remember all of them personally, one by one, and not only their names. After the end of each respective programme, I keep a relationship with just some of them. Among a group of 20 volunteers, you can come closer to some, and it is natural to find a common language easier with some than with others. In each group I have a favourite one, one that I naturally choose on the base of personal features and I follow more closely, without depriving anything from the rest in any way.
Once, there was a group of 15 volunteers who were amazing, all of them. They were such a fantastic group, that I know I will never have this kind of group again. They did everything so well; they did much more than they were expected to do and gave to us, to our city and to the community so much by being here and working for us… They even initiated a fund-raising activity by their own will and managed to gather over 2000 EUR.
I can say that most of them gave me strong emotions, either positive or negative but for sure they helped me (without being aware of it) to put myself all the time in a doubt, to overcome my limits and to growpersonally and professionally.
Applications, CVs & motivational letters are good and important, but sometimes they are only words on paper. What happens if a volunteer demonstrates a racist attitude for example, and/or if his/her behaviour doesn’t match with the mission and vision of CESIE?
Unfortunately, these things happen and it has happened to me as well. In the beginning, like 7 years ago, the sending organizations used to decide on their own who the volunteers will be, and we were not involved in the selection process. It has happened that they either didn’t care enough to make mistakes sometimes, or were not careful enough during the interviews. As a result we had a higher rate of drop-outs during the service.
In other cases, as those you are asking about, I have decided personally, that the person is not suitable for the project and we had to cancel the implementation. In such cases, before reaching this moment we have always tried to resolve an existing situation through dialogue, offering other opportunities and always a second chance. Nevertheless, sometimes the right thing to do is to interfere and cancel the person from the project. There were moments when the damage on our reputation and local respect would be harsh enough to ignore the consequences if we didn’t take any action. The important point in the whole EVS programme, and in each separate EVS project is to reach the point where you are heading. Thus, we cannot fight for social inclusion by tolerating racist behavior.
For the last 4 years we have been selecting the volunteers on our own. We have gathered adequate experience in hosting volunteers. Currently we cooperate with a series of social centres in Palermo and we don’t want to reach the point when they have complaints from the way we are trying to assist them in their job, exchanging our help for the creation of more problems than before.
During their first interview, on the top of my list of approaches for getting to know somebody is my inner feeling: are they natural or not? At least this, I can sense, even from Skype. And for me this is enough. Once I feel them, then I can find the way to cooperate with them.
How do you manage to keep the volunteers motivated for the whole period? There are so many opportunities and options for young people here…
It is normal that in a period of 9 months motivation goes up and down all the time. Here the role of the mentor is a very important one. Throughout the years I have learnt that being a good mentor is not an easy task. I was volunteers’ mentor in the beginning too. Very few can do this job well and are able to manage effectively a group of new people living in our town for the first time.
Also, I always try to acknowledge their effort and give constant feedback, both positive and negative. I don’t put limits to myself into this and try to reinforce the volunteers’ determination and attempt for improvement.
As motivation is behind our behaviour and the choices we make, if there is a problem, we always try to find a solution together. Normally, the first step is to sit and talk about it. We try to consider their and our different and sometimes contradictory points of view moving to concrete actions afterwards. Fortunately we are a big and at the same time flexible organization that can offer various opportunities but also solutions each time.
What happens if somebody desires to leave the programme in the meantime?
This has happened more than once and we have included this option as a clause in the contract that we sign before the volunteers’ arrival, and the procedure is pretty simple. First, they need to justify their decision. Then we analyze their decision and try to find the reasons behind it. It can be either part of their learning path or a way to avoid problems or even making an effort in finding a solution. The way we manage every situation is unique and depends on a combination of factors, thus our reaction and final decision can also be different. At the end, the road for the arrival of a new volunteer on their place is open.
After all, EVS is a life-changing opportunity and experience only for those who can appreciate it.
For some volunteers, especially for youngsters with fewer opportunities, EVS is the most important challenge in their life. Through this experience, they could change their life in some ways; they could orient themselves to other paths, making them more aware about their resources and increasing their self-confidence and self-esteem. For those youngsters, many efforts should be made by all parts involved in a EVS project but when these guys succeeded in completing their experience and they continue to try new learning opportunities, you feel lucky because thanks to your job and your engagement, the life of the others have changed.
© Inter Alia 2013