When we began this trip and set the goal of 100 service projects, we anticipated we would take away more from the experiences than we would contribute. While we certainly wanted to help out in communities, we also hoped these service connections would teach us about the countries we visit and the people who live in them. This is exactly what happened when I volunteered for the day at a Red Cross blood donation event here in Labin, Croatia. I walked in a little uncertain and hoping I could be helpful despite the obvious language barrier. What unfolded over the next six hours was an amazing experience that embodied everything we’d hoped to gain in this odd little journey our family has undertaken.
The local Red Cross organization in Labin offers services similar to those of the U.S. Red Cross. The staff organizes blood drives, helps respond to local emergency situations, drives fundraising for major disasters in the region, and offers support resources to citizens in need. The staff is never sure what kind of turnout they will get at the monthly blood drives, but on this day a long line quickly formed with new and returning donors.
Unlike the U.S. where blood donors get a cookie, a cup of juice and a grateful smile for their life-giving bag of platelets and plasma, in the Croatian culture donors receive an entire meal. It’s a full service, sit-down affair intended to nourish the body and promote camaraderie among these citizens who have made donating blood a regular part of their community service. Some of them have donated over a hundred times.
My work for the day would be to help serve and clean in the dining area. As with any new job, things started off a little uncertain. The kitchen staff didn’t speak English, so it was a little awkward at first. However, very quickly I understood how to help – cut bread and take out the bread baskets, roll cutlery into napkins, take out full plates, bring back empty ones, wash dishes, and wipe down the tables.
The volunteer serving as the hostess soon began telling me the words I needed to greet donors and take their orders. Želite li sok, voda ili vino? Would you like juice, water or wine? (Yes, tradition follows that they serve wine. This was definitely my kind of blood drive!) Would they prefer to have bišteke or pohano? Would they like blitva or pažul with that? I learned more Croatian words in six hours than I’d learned in the 3.5 weeks we’d been in the country. Each time I went back to the kitchen and used my new vocabulary to give them an order I would get big smiles, enthusiastic head nods and a boisterous Dobra! (Good!) from the cooks. For my eager-to-please Type A personality that might as well have been a big gold star.
In the midst of this work, I also learned a lot more about Croatia than just its language. In talking with the English-speaking staff I heard the personal side of Croatia’s recent history and got a better understanding of the struggle this beautiful country continues to experience as it adjusts to a new governmental system and recovers from the bloodiest European conflict since World War II. The Croatian War of Independence, fought from 1991 to 1995, was eventually a victory for Croatia. The country was finally recognized as a sovereign state and preserved its borders. However, the war had longlasting, devastating effects which continue to impede progress with the country’s economy, international standing, and internal relationships.
We hope to continue our work with the local Red Cross in the remaining days of our stay here. I can’t thank the staff enough for welcoming this blundering American into their ranks for the day and making me feel so welcome and useful. This service project exemplified what we hope to accomplish with this volunteering goal. I hope we can recreate the experience many times in the months to come.