Lucky bastard

I’ve been very lucky in my life. I was born in a warm and secure home, as the youngest of three, with an older brother and sister to look up to. I was always given the chance to do whatever I wanted. Add some friends I could always really count on to that mix and you have all the ingredients for a carefree childhood. Of course it hasn’t all been sunshine and roses, but I really can’t complain. So when I do catch myself complaining, I try to actively take a moment to acknowledge all those positive things I’m surrounded with.

Joke Verreth

Breaking down barriers

From an early age, I’ve had a fascination for language. In primary school, I always lent the maximum amount of books during our weekly library visit and I loved and still love to get lost in a good book, to immerse myself in the worlds that are created there. Language reflects culture and my fascination for languages soon led to a fascination for other countries and cultures as well.

One of my favourite stories of my childhood is one I don’t remember myself. Every summer, a folk dance festival was organised in my town and two international folk dancers stayed at our house. That way, I was already offered a taste of different languages and cultures as a child. When I was still a toddler, we had a couple from Egypt over. They only spoke Arabic, so it was not easy for my parents to communicate with them. Apparently I was walking in the garden with them one day, all of us roaring with laughter. We perfectly understood each other, no language barrier in sight. Isn’t that great? The story has always stuck with me, because it’s something I notice nowadays as well. Children are way better at breaking down (language) barriers than adults. They spontaneously look for ways to communicate and don’t stop to think about possible differences. That’s something us adults can learn a lot from. The discourse these days is more about building walls, literally and figuratively, than about breaking them down. Griet op de Beeck, a word artist, wrote a beautiful text about this after the terrorist attacks in Belgium on 22 March 2016, titled “Let us dare”. Unfortunately, it’s in Dutch, but I’ll translate one sentence which is key for me: “Let’s leave them open: our doors, our arms, our minds.”

From book smarts to street smarts

My fascination for languages and other cultures translated into my choice to study Applied Linguistics at University College Ghent. One of my language teachers in secondary school worriedly asked me why I was going to college and not to university. At an educational fair I had found out that at that university I would learn where each letter comes from by analysing texts extensively. The lady at the fair had sparkles in her eyes when she told me. My sparkles, however, disappeared at once. I wanted to learn languages to use them, to be able to really engage in conversation with people. My patience was tested a bit, but after my second year of college I was finally able to convert my fascination for languages in real conversations. I travelled to Panama with five friends, where we visited the former host family of one of them. I immediately felt right at home. It was my first real experience abroad after our family vacations and I wanted more! One year later, I went on Erasmus in Valencia and my love for travelling and those real conversations only increased.

After obtaining my Masters in Multilingual Communication, I signed up for a master after master in Specific Teacher Training, so I could transfer my passion for languages onto the next generation. I couldn’t stop thinking about Panama and Valencia, though. I wanted to go abroad again, immerse myself in those cultures I’d been learning and reading so much about. I travelled to Brazil with a friend and, afterwards, travelled on for five more months on my own. Latin America is a beautiful continent (Calle 13 – another word artist – captured it beautifully in this song) and my trip is an experience I’ll never forget.

In Peru, I volunteered at Pisco Sin Fronteras, an organisation dedicated to rebuilding Pisco after the earthquake in 2007. I coordinated the construction of ecological toilets in a remote village, always in consultation with the people living there. For me, it was incredibly important that the project was ran together with them and not just for them, that we didn’t go there and decide what we thought they supposedly needed. Although I’m all thumbs, it was really nice to roll up my sleeves and to do something constructive. I also remember the hospitality: at noon we were always invited to eat with one of the families. A wonderful experience!

Joke Verreth Pisco Sin Fronteras

And, one day, you find the job of a lifetime!

Once back on Belgian soil, I started working in ‘the educational system’. Although I had incredibly nice students and colleagues (all motivated, yes, it’s possible =)!), I never truly found my bearings. Because I could not find a permanent job, it was difficult to really build up ties with the students. Each student has his own manual and by the time I had more or less figured it out, I had to leave again. On to the next school, with other rules, colleagues, students, text books, … After 4 years, I’d had it and started the quest for a different job.

I knew what I would like to be doing, but it seemed impossible to combine all those different things in one job. When I read the vacancy of Partnership Coordinator Europa & Latin-America, a big smile spread across my face. I instantly knew this was it: the job of my dreams! I still feel fortunate every day to have been given the chance to work here and I’m incredibly grateful for all the learning opportunities I’ve already been offered. Once in a while, I’m really pushed out of my comfort zone. A couple of weeks ago, for example, I gave a presentation on a conference on street work in Spain, for about 300 people. With a shaky voice and clammy hands, I struggled my way through it. Incredibly happy with another experience gained.

I’m very lucky to be able to cooperate with passionate, talented, inspirational people realising beautiful things, both at our office and abroad, at the organisations we partner up with. A team of champs I can learn from every day. From what they know and from their capabilities, but also from how they go through life. My colleagues are more than just my colleagues. At the office, I feel completely at home and I can just be myself, loud laugh and extreme list-making included. Lunch breaks are magical moments for me. Not because spectacular things happen then, but because we sit around the table with the entire team and just talk about everything and nothing.

Our volunteers are also a part of our team for me. We truly have the best volunteers in the world and I’m not just saying that because I started here as a volunteer myself =) During our last volunteer weekend it struck me once again how lucky we are with that group of warm, positive, energetic, … people. That happy bunch immediately makes you feel at home.

Magic on wheels

I always look forward to the street sessions that are planned during training weeks. Time and time again I can see there that our tool works! The mobile school is often described as a magnet, a magical box. That magical box needs magicians: the local street educators. It is they who hit the streets every day and work their magic with the mobile school. That’s why we are currently fully committed to developing digital tools to better support them, so they can keep focusing on their core business: empowering the children and youngsters they work with. It’s of crucial importance for those children and youngsters to find a positive sense of belonging at the mobile school.

Joke Verreth Romania

My best experience with the mobile school? Every training is memorable for me, so to choose just one is incredibly difficult. If I really had to pick one moment it would be one of the street sessions I attended in Querétaro, Mexico with the team of Alimentos para la Vida. During the workshop on creativity, they came up witha brilliant rap activity with the words ‘rope, music and world’. They know the youngsters they work with like the back of their hand, which allows them to tailor the activities to their talents. A small speaker provided us with the necessary beats and the youngsters freestyled about the environment and the world the entire session long. An incredible experience!

The power of moments

You are the sum of the moments you experience and of the people you meet. It’s a bit more complex than that, of course, but I truly believe in the power of moments. In the snowball effect a kind gesture can have. Maybe it sounds a bit too hug-a-tree-y and naive, but if you smile at someone on the street, stand up for someone on a bus, help carry an overweight case or a pram down the stairs, … - in short, if you do something kind for someone – the chance of that person doing something nice for someone else in his turn increases exponentially, according to me. And that’s something I want to keep believing in, in the power of moments and in the goodness of people, too.

That power of moments is something I see happening at the mobile school as well. Children arrive there with their backpacks filled with stories and, for a moment, find themselves in a positive bubble, a place where they can really be themselves and don’t get judged. Where they get the time and the opportunities to discover and develop their talents and, that way, have the necessary tools to take ownership over their lives and decide what their next steps will be.

Shift the paradigm

People tend to generalise and are quick to judge. That’s why it’s incredibly valuable for me that at StreetwiZe • Mobile School, a lot of importance is attached to the shift in paradigm, in everything we do. Everyone is entitled to his opinion, but you also have to be able to place yourself in someone else’s shoes, always see both sides of a story. That, possibly, is the most important lesson I’ve learned here so far.

Frankie says relax

I have a chaotic brain and a memory like a sieve, which is why I need more structure than the average person. Consequently, I developed a slightly neurotic form of list-making. I’m also a perfectionist – truly a wonderful combination ;) – so, on average, things usually take three times as long to finish as I’d hoped and planned, which is why I’m always running behind on schedule. I’m trying my hardest to curb that perfectionist streak, but there is still a lot of learning potential…

In my spare time, I usually also have a jam-packed calendar. My family and friends are really important to me, so I love spending time with them. In addition, I like to do many other things and there’s even more things I still want to do. I also really like everything I do and basically, there’s just not enough hours in a day! Sometimes I bite off a little more than I can chew, though, and I have to hit the brakes. “Too much of anything is bad, except for too much contentment” is some wise advice my grandmother gave me, one of the strongest women I know. 89 and still going strong. I’m doing my best to follow her advice.

What I still want to achieve? A lot! In short, I want to keep enjoying life to the fullest, keep learning and keep growing.


#perfectionist #masterofstructure #listmaker #wonderfullyenthusiastic #cheerful #polyglot #reveler #fitsoflaughter #bigsmile #animallover/-cuddler #empathic #languagepurist