Through volunteering, I experienced that there is such a thing as self-esteem

Maltese Charity

“The key is when a young person growing up in a colony in very difficult circumstances suddenly starts to look beyond his shortcomings. Not at what I don’t have, but what I do have. ‘Gee, I can give to others, I can bring joy to others.’ While, of course, we also deal with the deficits, that’s not the focus. It’s about what they can bring to the table. How they can bring a lifetime of joy to others, be it a child, an elderly person, or even an injured person, while they too are struggling with their own deficits.”

The Hungarian Maltese Charity Lyukóvölgyi Community House, which started in 2016, runs the Máltanoda Lyukóvölgy programme – a school for disadvantaged pupils, especially those from the Roma community. The program offers individual and small group sessions and organizes recreational activities to develop different skills and abilities. The children who attend regularly participate in voluntary activities.

From a very young age, the boys and girls who come here have formed a team. As they grow older, they develop a desire to contribute to their community. Children eagerly await turning 14, the age when they can become part of an exceptional community, the Lyukóvölgyi Youth Community, or LYFK. The Lyukó Valley, in the immediate vicinity of Miskolc, is one of the largest colonies in the country, home to thousands of people, most of them living in extreme poverty. Basic services for their needs, like public wells, are scarce, and sources of entertainment and personal development programs are almost inaccessible to them.

Since 2005, the Academy of Experience has been working for the social inclusion of young people from difficult backgrounds through non-formal learning programs and local and international youth work. Through the PILLER program, they support disadvantaged youth groups in community development processes, empowering them to implement their initiatives.

With the support of the Academy of Experience, young people from LYFK are working to make a difference in their estate, striving to make it a more livable place for their peers. Most young people in the area lack positive role models or a vision for the future. However, learning about their values and strengths boosts their self-esteem, encouraging them to actively participate in shaping their desired future.

“We meet twice a week,” says Marianna Ágnes Szibig, aka Sister Ágnes, “and on these occasions, we engage in small volunteer activities like herb collecting, packing, and litter picking. Sometimes, it’s solely about volunteering. For example, we recently paved a pavement on the other side of the road.” On the other side live two elderly aunts who wanted to resolve a drainage issue after water stagnation on the pavement. “A specialist assessed the equipment needed,” Ágnes explains, “and the young people put it into action.”

During the autumn break, the young people participated in two volunteer camps: younger, school-age children camped in Sátoraljaújhely, while others volunteered at a farm and nursing home, and in a home for severely disabled people in Veresegyháza. The camps included volunteer activities and entertainment – this time, they were able to sail on the Danube, thanks to a donation.

At Christmas, they distributed three hundred shoebox gifts to local families. “The young people split into four groups, covered the entire area, made a list of families, and prepared personal invitations. They even personally delivered the gifts to those who couldn’t come,” Sister Ágnes recounts emotionally, “It’s beautiful.”

Twelve of the 18 LYFK members gathered for a recent event, which included a pizza party, communication development exercises, and an evaluation of recent camps. The members, aged 14 to 21, first participated in an opening circle, focusing on gratitude and their achievements. They then engaged in discussions about what they had learned from volunteering, writing their thoughts on large pieces of paper. “Through volunteering, I have gained self-respect,” one wrote, while another discovered “the joy of giving” through good deeds.

Zoltán Kozár, a staff member of the organization, notes that after a community development program with the Academy of Experience, the LYFK students came up with ideas for future activities, including meeting more frequently. The Academy of Experience’s “From Us to You” program consists of four five-day sessions: team-building, volunteering experience, training, and the execution of volunteering activities. This program has significantly impacted the young people, helping them realize their ability to help and give to others. The long-term goal is to support the creation of as many communities as possible, like LYFK, where young people actively contribute to their community.

“It’s an active community,” Zoltán continues, “working even when we’re not here. We let the young people decide what they want to do. We provide a framework and an opportunity for them to figure it out for themselves. Some have already participated in the Academy of Experience’s international programs, including trips to Spain, where they were introduced to different cultures and ways of life.”

The group’s next activity was a bingo game, where young people had to find others matching specific descriptions. This activity, along with storytelling exercises like retelling Little Red Riding Hood from different characters’ perspectives, fosters empathy and understanding among the group. They learn to appreciate each other’s perspectives, despite experiencing things differently.

Discipline and rule-following are deeply ingrained in the community, as seen when they eagerly return from breaks early or when they remind each other to stay off their phones during meetings. “The knowledge they’ve acquired over the years is beneficial both at work and school,” Zoltán adds, “They’ve learned to talk about their issues instead of resorting to physical confrontation. They encourage each other to attend school and support one another.”

However, behind their enthusiasm and ambition lie difficult stories. Some are being raised by single mothers, with absent alcoholic fathers, leading to conflict and hardship. One young person had to drop out of school to become the breadwinner, while another was thrown out of his home and is now staying with a friend, struggling to continue his high school education. Another young person’s mother recently suffered a serious accident, leaving her with an immobile hand, prompting the community to acquire an automatic washing machine to assist her.

Sister Ágnes reflects, “These imported experiences are constantly being offset. For instance, when a young person leads a game for small children, his whole demeanor changes. He relates to them with love and tenderness he may never have known from his father.”

The upcoming activities for LYFK include a fundraiser at a Spar in Miskolc to collect non-perishable food for those in need. “We are not collecting for ourselves,” Sister Ágnes clarifies. The program ended with the young people evaluating their performance at the last camps, discussing what they would keep, change, and do differently.

Some rated themselves a ten, others a six, and they discussed how to improve their scores for the next evaluation. “I’ve only picked up a broom once; I’d like to change that,” one self-critically remarked, while others aimed for a perfect score. At the end of the program, some of the more courageous young people shared what LYFK means to them and how they see their lives now.

Klaudia, uncertain about her future, is studying to be a beautician but prefers to be a police officer, though she now thinks she will work in a factory. She enjoys the community’s playful atmosphere and the joy of giving, especially during Christmas. Rajmi values the community for giving him his childhood, as he works instead of attending school, finding fulfillment in helping others. Józsi and Milan, studying to be tilers, look forward to supporting their families and helping others. Rami, who loves children, runs programs for them and currently works as a kitchen maid, despite having a baker-cook qualification. Bea, working at the Bosch factory, appreciates the community’s atmosphere and the opportunity to bring joy to others.

Sister Agnes believes that such communities can form anywhere. “If we recognize how beautiful and precious we are, this shift can happen anywhere. There are young people just as precious everywhere. And when I stop seeing myself as ‘a gypsy kid from the infamous Lyuko’ but as ‘a valuable member of a very good community with so much to give to others,’ miracles happen.”

As we left, Sister Agnes handed us tea made from herbs picked by the young people, labeled “Lyuko’s Treasure.” “We may not always be here, but these young people are here to stay. The knowledge they already have, and more to come, will stay here, in their families. They already know the importance of playing with and looking after the little ones. They are the treasure of Lyuko.”

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Photo by Marton Mohos /