Sharing Lena's Story as a Project Coordinator in Killarney National Park:

First Priority: Having Fun – VSI Workcamp Killarney National Park (2018) - Europe North America Australia & Japan

By: Lena Schneider

Working together with SCI and VSI Ireland was the perfect opportunity for me to come back and visit the magical place that is Killarney National Park. The park comprises of 10,000 hectacres that include three stunning lakes and some of the oldest oak woodlands in Ireland. The combination of mountains, woodlands and waterways gives this place a magical feeling, and losing track of time is as easy as feeling deeply relaxed. Being an ecologist and biologist, the sight of rare plants and animals are some of the many highlights that make these workcamp stays in the national park so special.

The sight of moss-covered stones and trees gave me the feeling of being in a Harry Potter or a Lord of the Rings movie. The park has the largest of only three remaining natural Yew woodlands in Europe, and with each visit to Reenadinna one is left with a feeling of enchantment.

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©Photo by Lena Schneider

It is a pity that such a tranquil national park must deal with such an insidious and invasive plant as Rhododendron.

Tourists often marvel at the aesthetically pleasing flowerers that are produced by rhododendron when in full bloom in the early summer.

However, Tim Cahalane and Peter O’Toole, who oversee the Rhododendron eradication programme, know exactly what kind of damage this menacing plant can cause--not just to the highly protected oak woodlands, but also to the many small animals and invertebrates that depend on these habitats for survival. Once rhododendron matures, becomes a dominant species and forms a close canopy, a dark lifeless understory is all that will remain.

However, help in the war against this unwelcomed park resident comes in the form of the many students from different universities who come from across the EU--some for many months at a time--to participate in the park’s conservation programme throughout the year. This critically important work is also augmented with addition of four two week Voluntary Services International (VSI) Ireland  work camps that run throughout the summer months.

One of the most satisfying feelings of working as a VSI volunteer in the National Park is to see how much of a difference ten to twelve extra people can make. Having these extra volunteers really makes a big difference especially when clearing areas with a high density of plants.

Anna from Czech Republic remembers the satisfying feeling of seeing the fruits of our labour: “When we returned to the place we had been before and saw that the rhododendron plants that we had treated had died off, I felt that we were really doing meaningful work here as there were other days, when we were working and there were rhodos everywhere…  I sometimes felt frustrated as no matter how many we had already treated there were still a lot more to do.”

Walking through knee-high bracken and wetlands up the mountains to untouched places to see an even more beautiful spectacle than what tourists enjoy when they visit Ladies View is worth every drop of sweat that is needed to hike up there. The beauty of these places takes one’s breath away, as Belén (from Spain) states: “when after we have been working on the mountains for a while, we take a look around and realize again how beautiful everything around us is and how incredible the views are. I could never get tired of that".

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©Photo by Belén Albor

The collaboration with the national park and VSI was uncomplicated and trustworthy. As volunteers, we can only say that the people involved with this organization did their best to make us feel welcome and facilitate our stay. We only saw kindness and good humour, and even the trips back and forth to our daily work locations were fun. Market (Czech Rep.) remembers: “I think every situation begun laughing, it was great ...but I have in my mind that moment when Jerry (the taxi man) said: "Hi guys, another boring day at the office?" After a day when we worked in the highest peak with such beautiful views...that was a great joke”.  

Volunteers come from all over the world to join the project for two weeks; they stay in a house right within the park on the beautiful Muckross Peninsula. The ages of the volunteers are, as the VSI filling in form states, “from 18 to 99” years old. It´s true that early twenties are the average, but the mixture of ages is one of the richness of the group, as well as the diversity of nationalities and backgrounds.

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©Photo by Lena Schneider

Working together with an international group for a common goal is such a great opportunity to open one’s mind. The promotion of culture and peace is not only achieved by the preservation of nature, but also by the time spent together as volunteers. The diversity of experiences, interests and personalities is a constant source of information and amusement. “I like that all the volunteers have so much general knowledge, I really learned a lot in those two weeks”, told Kaja, an 18 year old volunteer from Slovenia. It was her first time far away from home. “The camp was definitely something new for me in many ways.  It was my first time being so far from home and for so long. At first, I was nervous how it might be. But when Iarrived, the energy was amazing! I was totally relaxed, and I just enjoying the good company and was amazed by everything.  I really love that we cooked for ourselves. It was more fun and I tried new food that I really love. I already tried to do paella and tortilla on my own back home. It was not so good as it was with the camp, but I think I am getting better.”

This past workcamp of July 2018 was an incredible experience made part by the good atmosphere and coexistence of an exceptionally nice group. We only have good memories, like when we played “Who I am”, which quickly became everybody’s favourite. I'll cherish the memories of all of us sitting down outside the house, eating chocolate in a beautiful summer night, laughing and trying to find common characters for such diverse backgrounds, fighting over whether “Hermione had superpowers (against magic) or whether Nemo was a pet” (Eva, Slovenia).

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©Photo by Belén (giving each other compliments for the way back home)

Everybody worked their best to make Killarney Rhododendron free. We also did our best to be in a good mood, have respect for others in their needs (even to be left alone for a while, as Anna pointed out) and share moments of enjoyment. That was done, for example, by finding remote connection to the Internet to see the World Cup together, and “Alex (Russia) running around the yard with his arms lifted like an antenna

Coordinators are a key aspect to the success of the workcamp. The Volunteers were asked to write down their opinions of myself and my amazing co-coordinator Belén, who has a big heart for everyone and always tried to have an ear and a free spot of comfort for everyone. I can say I still feel my eyes watering from the kind and sweet feedback we received from the Volunteers. Without a bad conscience, I can claim that Belén and I did a great job on organizing and motivating the group.
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©Photo by Peter O'Toole

Overall it was the best workcamp ever “because of the people we met there” (Belén, Spain). “As a volunteer,I truly believe that we have the potential to change something and experience the raw nature of Ireland, there is no better place than Killarney.”

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©Photo by Lena Schneider

Text: by all the amazing Volunteers

Lena Schneider

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