“Finally, as we begin our work, we cannot fail to be aware of the new dimension that has opened up in the Emmaus movement in recent years with the ever-increasing involvement of young people as volunteers in our holiday work camps. We are discovering (…) that Emmaus not only responds to the expectations of the poor, and not only helps to raise awareness among the privileged, but it also brings light and inspiration to the countless young people seeking [something]. (…) And yet, in this storm, we see that many young people experience an inner shock and regain real hope when they encounter what the Emmaus movement strives to do.”

Extracts from Abbé Pierre’s opening speech at the 1st General Assembly (24 May 1969)

Young people involved in international volunteering

On 11 May 1955, whilst giving a speech in San Francisco, Abbé Pierre made a passionate appeal for humanity and voluntary action to fight against the poverty and suffering of humankind.

Since the beginning of Emmaus, volunteers have been dedicating their skills and time to the communities. In 1958, Abbé Pierre was invited to Sweden where the social system was so advanced that young people did not know what to fight for. The country was facing a wave of suicides among students. Abbé Pierre invited them to act by volunteering to help those suffering in developing countries.

The following year, Susan Sandberg and her friends set up the Svalorna organisation (‘Swallows’, in English); this became the name for volunteers who, like the migratory birds, came back to their country to share their experiences and call on the population and those in power to help developing countries. The first Swedish volunteers were sent to Peru and then to India, closely followed by other young Danish, Finnish, Norwegian and French volunteers.

Emmaus groups were born out of these initiatives, and the majority are still active today.

Youth work camps in France and across Europe

In France, the youth camps began in 1963. The Emmaus travelling community had been touring Normandy (France) since 1956 when, in the summer of 1962, it welcomed secondary school children during the holidays. The aim was to give them the Emmaus experience: living in a community, working as ‘ragpickers’ (collecting, sorting and then selling items) and meeting the local population and authorities in a spirit of service.

Due to popular demand, the experience was repeated in 1963 outside the community, and this was the first international youth camp. Very quickly, the number of participants grew significantly, there were a lot of young people from other European countries and international camps became independent of the travelling community in 1965. In the 1960s and 1970s, they welcomed a few thousand young people every summer.

They sometimes took place abroad (Spain, Denmark, Italy) but also in Finland from 1968, and in Germany.

Today, these youth camps are still welcoming young people during the summer from around the world. In France, Emmaus France organises them, in Europe, they are organised by Emmaus Europe.

Creation of groups as a result of these work camps

Many Emmaus communities or Emmaus Friends’ Committees were created following an international youth work camp. The camps are clearly a fantastic training ground for the next generation of Emmaus group leaders and activists!

In the summer of 1969, 56 international work camps were organised in 44 Danish towns and cities. 5,000 young people took part, 3,000 of whom came from abroad. The first community of Danish ragpickers was set up shortly afterwards.

In 1967, camps were held in 24 towns and cities in northern Italy; the project was a great success and helped to raise Emmaus’ profile and spur on its development in Italy.

In 1970, the model took hold on the other side of the Pyrenees. Young Spaniards took the lead and began organising annual summer work camps. In 1976, the first community of ragpickers started near Bilbao. In Pamplona, Emmaus’ work began in 1972 with a summer camp, leading to the creation of the 2nd community in 1978.

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