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A gap year is about so much more than a "long holiday"! Whether you do it before or after going to university, or taking a break from work or training, there are many opportunities to enable you to use the time to develop new skills, experience different cultured, and help others. Natalie introduces her volunteering placement in Northern Ireland, where she supported adults with learning difficulties and autism.

One of the European Solidarity Corps (ESC) volunteering opportunities coordinated by Eurodesk UK Partner Organisation Bryson Charitable Group is with the NOW Group.  NOW Group is a social enterprise based in Belfast that supports people with learning difficulties and autism into jobs with a future. Their first hosted ESC volunteer was Natalie, aged 20, from Ainring, southern Germany, who wanted to use her gap year after school to improve her English, learn about a new culture and make an impact in the local community. She got the opportunity to do this when she spent 12 months volunteering with NOW Group.

“I really liked NOW Group’s mission and I wanted to volunteer directly with people, making a difference in their lives. With an interest in psychology, I thought that supporting people with learning disabilities and autism would give me a useful insight.”

Supporting people

Natalie volunteered in a variety of roles during her year, including supporting skills groups and social forums. She also volunteered with the family service, which supports parents with learning difficulties and NOW’s community programme which supports participants with more severe learning disabilities who aren’t ready for work. Natalie also supported individuals with a learning disability at the organisation’s social enterprise Loaf Cafe Bakery. She comments, “I had a lot of fun at the café and really enjoyed supporting the participants with baking and learning about local food. One morning we made 200 scones and I learnt about ‘fifteens’ which is a local bun with coconut, marshmallow and cherries.”

“I also loved seeing the participants enjoy music and being able to express themselves through songs and drama. One of my favourite memories is when one of NOW Group’s social groups took part in a local project with the Ulster Orchestra. It was lovely seeing the participants enjoy the music and being able to express themselves in different ways.”


young women in historical clothes, wearing hats

Natalie says that her favourite aspect of volunteering was working with participants, “I loved seeing their progress and confidence grow. I have a much better understanding of learning disability and autism. NOW Group has shown me how important it is to focus on what people can do, find out what they would like to do and give them the chance to do it. I really enjoyed working alongside the staff, they were really supportive and I felt part of the family.”

Getting out and about

During her spare time, Natalie enjoyed getting to explore Northern Ireland’s nature and its coastline. She says, “Belfast has a strong sense of community, it is a very social and active city. It’s a lot bigger than I thought and there is a large international community. It has amazing live music in bars for free which you would pay a lot of money for in Germany. I will definitely be taking the tradition of drinking hot whiskey for a cold or flu back home, it really works!”


group of young people outdoors

Natalie’s next big adventure is university in Vienna to study psychology. She also hopes to continue volunteering, “I would recommend a placement abroad to anyone, it has definitely improved my English and I have learnt so much. If I meet anyone in the future who seems to be struggling or needs support, I will be more mindful about hidden disabilities, have patience and offer them support.”

A fantastic asset

Jenny Potter, NOW Group’s Community Development Manager says, “Natalie has been a real asset to the organisation over the last 12 months. She has been fantastic support to both our participants and staff right across the organisation. As a social enterprise, we really value our volunteers like Natalie who support us to achieve our mission.”


Article submitted by Bryson Charitable Group, Eurodesk UK Partner.


Opportunities, such as Natalie's, abound - have a look at our Volunteering abroad pages!