SALTO is the place where I discovered all the opportunities that youth work can provide. Back in 2004 and when I first heard of SALTO, I worked for a Belarusian NGO, Youth Education Centre Fialta, that did a lot of youth training – something I later learnt was called youth work elsewhere. We mostly used short-term formats, such as half-day workshops or two-to-three day residential events, mostly because there were no resources nor support to do anything bigger. This is a general problem in Belarusian civil society. It was also because hardly anyone in Belarus believed that youth work was important, and that it could achieve much.
Most of our work was activity-focused, as we usually looked at the number of workshops we could offer. When I went for my first SALTO event in Poland, I was surprised to learn that youth work can in fact be taken very seriously. I learnt that it could be studied, researched, supported, and promoted far beyond what we thought was locally possible in Belarus. On top of that, I learnt about many new and fun youth work methods. I could also see how youth work could be a transformative experience and how long-term approaches can allow us to see the change in young people which is hard to catch in short-term activities.
Things have gotten much worse in the last twenty years or so: the country remains isolated, international organisations and funding are hard to come by, and visa restrictions make some visits complicated.
I think I ‘paid back’ for all the investment SALTO made in my development by spreading the message about European youth co-operation in Belarus and cooperation with SALTO has gone from strength to strength. We now have several generations of multipliers, and many young people and youth workers participated in various SALTO and European youth work events. We are nowhere near the activity levels of Georgia or Ukraine, but the trend is positive, and this gives me hope.
I remember when I was first involved in SALTO events and how upset my then boyfriend would get about my travelling. SALTO projects are very inclusive, and it is quite normal to see young women in leadership roles, which is something that is not always welcome in a conservative society like Belarus.
Finally, SALTO helped me to learn more about my neighbours. I think I met Georgians, Armenians, and Azerbaijanis for the first time in my life at my first SALTO event. It was great to see that we could work together at the regional level. I have now lived in both Armenia and Georgia and it was a great experience.