I first visited Our Chalet in December 1998/January 1999 as a participant in the 3rd Helen Storrow Seminar. I quickly fell in love with the beautiful surrounds and the magical atmosphere of Our Chalet. Meeting young women from countries as diverse as and , and , I came to understand the meaning of the last lines of the Our Chalet song – each race, each creed, each nation, beneath its roof are one. I also discovered that it was possible for members of WAGGGS to volunteer at the World Centres.
During the next eight years, I often visited the Our Chalet website, looking at the pictures of Our Chalet and dreaming of what it would be like to really live there. Then following a trip to Our Chalet with my Guides in July 2006, I finally decided that it was time to take a career break and apply to volunteer at Our Chalet – it was time to make my dream reality!
When I received the email notifying me that my application had been successful, I was very excited! I was also slightly nervous; as a 31 year old single lawyer, I didn’t quite fit what I imagined to be the profile of the “average” volunteer, and I wondered what challenges that might present. As it turned out, I need not have worried. Whilst I was older than many staff, the age gap didn’t generally matter, and living in a communal situation was fine – in fact, I really enjoyed the company and the late night chatter!
My time as a volunteer began on 5 February 2007. Unlike Summer, where there are large groups of Guides and Girl Scouts participating in structured sessions, Winter at Our Chalet is more varied. Sometimes we had only a handful of guests (which made for a nice family atmosphere, particularly at meal times) and other times we had a full house. Many of the guests spent their days skiing, and a few of the volunteers who could ski had the opportunity to take guests downhill or cross-country skiing. I took a group of Girl Scouts tobogganing, and as the weather warmed up, we led many groups on hikes to the woodcarver and Engstligen Falls .
No day at Our Chalet is ever the same. Unless you have been there, it is hard to understand the huge range of tasks that must be done to keep a World Centre running! Most days would begin with the routine tasks of cleaning, laundry, rubbish and recycling, as well as snow shoveling if it had snowed overnight. We would then begin on the many miscellaneous jobs that needed to be done. Sometimes we had to restock the shop or make inventory lists, other times there were new wheelie bins to be assembled or signs to make. I was given many opportunities to use my skills, reviewing contracts and other documents, or using my German to book ski lessons for guests, help with food orders or conduct tours of Our Chalet for German-speaking guests, including a group of Swiss Scouts from the nearby lakeside town of Thun . From time to time, I had the opportunity to prepare itineraries for visiting groups, and to help develop programs for new sessions on offer. I also cooked dinner numerous times, discovering that I really could cook a roast for 60 people, and introducing the staff and guests to delicacies such as tuna mornay and banana caramel pie.
After dinner we would take turns cleaning up the kitchen, working in the shop (which I really enjoyed) and organising evening programme for the guests. Common programmes included the first night tour of Our Chalet, Swiss night and campfires, but a scavenger hunt, snow games and Scherenschnitte (Swiss paper cutting) were also popular, as was an international night.
During my time at Our Chalet we hosted a number of special events. From the sunrise promise renewal ceremony to a closing ceremony where we placed lit candles in a trefoil shape, it was a magical experience to spend Thinking Day in the snowy Alps with friends from around the World. Easter was also a memorable day, beginning with a performance by the local brass band on the grounds of Our Chalet, followed by a gourmet breakfast and an Easter Egg hunt.
Finally, at the end of April, we hosted the 5th Helen Storrow Seminar. As my first experience of Our Chalet had been the 3rd Helen Storrow Seminar, it was very special to be present at the 5th Seminar. As well as helping with the preparations for the Seminar, we volunteers accompanied the delegates on a day trip to Geneva and had the opportunity to mix with them during meals and evening programmes. It was very interesting to learn about the Seminar topic (HIV/AIDS) and to meet the delegates, who were from a wide range of countries.
Life is not all work at Our Chalet – there is time to play, too! On my days off I generally went skiing. Beginning as a novice who could barely stand on skis, by the time the season ended I had skied many blue slopes and even a few red ones! I also went snow tubing and ice skating (on an outdoor rink!), visited my friend Ursula in Thun, took a day trip to Basel and another to a water slide park on Lake Geneva, and enjoyed several leisurely afternoons in Adelboden, sampling delicious cakes!
It is not only the scenery and the activities that make a place special – it is also the people. During my time at Our Chalet I worked with staff from all over the world. Each person brought their own unique skills and personality to the group, and I learnt a lot about different cultures and customs, and Guiding and Scouting in different countries, as well as gaining special new friends from around the World. One of my best memories is working in the kitchen, listening to simultaneous conversations in English, German, French and Spanish!
Of course, life at a World Centre is hard work, and you face many challenges. However, the knowledge, skills and friendships you gain, as well as the fun you have along the way, are well worth it! I encourage anyone considering volunteering at a World Centre to apply now – it is never too late to make your dreams reality.
Volunteer, January – March 2006