“We felt alone in a room full of people, and now, when we are isolated, we are all together”

Volunteer Youth Reporters in North Macedonia find their voice

Angela Hawke
Participants join a Volunteer Youth Reporters workshop.
UNICEF, Screenshot 2020
18 May 2020

These are challenging and uncertain times, with nobody sure when or how the COVID-19 pandemic will end. Even the experts are in uncharted territory. However, one thing is clear: everyone – including young people – can help to keep communities safe.

UNICEF is working with young people across North Macedonia to find workable solutions to community problems. Through its ‘Volunteering in the time of COVID-19’ initiative, UNICEF gives them space to network and take a lead on designing initiatives to engage in the response to the pandemic. And 16 of them are now working as UNICEF Volunteer Youth Reporters. The aim is to build a network of young people who have the skills to make their voices heard and showcase the positive contributions being made by their peers during the COVID-19 pandemic, and long after the crisis has passed.

The Volunteer Youth Reporters are being trained to create and produce their own multi-media content, including blogs, videos, vlogs, written articles and social media posts, on the topics that matter to them. They are working together to carry out local research on the challenges that concern children and young people in their own communities, to raise awareness of these challenges and come up with solutions.

The scheme builds on a Youth Volunteer Programme that was underway before North Macedonia had to close its schools and restrict people’s movements. All 16 young people had responded to UNICEF’s call for volunteers, and everything was ready for the training, which would kick of this pioneering initiative.

A warm-up exercise during a Volunteer Youth Reporters workshop.
UNICEF, Screenshot 2020.
A warm-up exercise during a Volunteer Youth Reporters workshop.

The original plan was for the volunteers to come to UNICEF’s Office in Skopje for weekly workshops over the course of two months, but COVID-19 made that impossible. Rather than delay the training, UNICEF simplified it and shifted the entire programme online. The aim was to equip volunteers with basic reporting skills, so that they could get to work as quickly as possible, through workshops that focused on:

  • Information on COVID 19
  • Media literacy and writing a blog
  • Getting your blogs ready
  • Graphic design and video production

It soon became clear that the young volunteers were open to new ideas and eager to express their views. They were very enthusiastic about the feedback they received and seeing their work take shape. But above all, they were excited about contributing to the COVID-19 response. As Veronika, aged 16 explained:

“Why do I volunteer? I volunteer because I really like helping, and I truly believe that every single person can somehow contribute to the common solution. Also, volunteering is the best wellbeing booster someone can get :). My motto during the time of COVID-19 is: We felt alone in a room full of people, and now, when we are isolated, we are all together. The virus is just a lesson that we need to learn, and if we stay at home and respect the advice of the competent, we'll soon beat it. We are not alone.” 

Their first task was to define their topics, asking their peers to share their views on the issues of greatest concern to them, which included mental health, the difficulty of adapting to distance learning and more. The workshops also connected the participants with experts on COVID-19, as well as those who could offer insights on media skills.

"Volunteering is the best wellbeing booster someone can get."

The trainers soon realized that the young volunteers were well-informed and well-connected, and that they had their own strong opinions – shaped by their access to a mass of information on social media and other channels.

“They arrived with research skills at their fingertips,” says Patrizia Di Giovanni, UNICEF Representative “and were very savvy at gathering information quickly, with one click of a button. Because they are already media literate, they don’t need to be spoon-fed information. They are also astute at distinguishing between credible facts and fake news, and well-placed to show other young people how to make that distinction.”

Most of the Volunteer Youth Reporters had never written anything before, other than their schoolwork. But now they are learning by doing, and are working in teams to produce four blogs:

  • ‘Health-Yes, Stigma-No’, on mental health 
  • Socialization during the new normal
  • Distance learning: problems and possible solutions
  • What lessons will the world learn from the COVID-19 pandemic

Asked why she volunteered, Maria, aged 15 said: “Volunteering encourages me a lot, it is developing my skills and competencies. I’ll gain real experience which will benefit the community and I’ll make an impact. As a Young Reporter I am having so much fun by doing something meaningful and it fulfils me. What I also love is that each of us have different stories, from which I learn new things that make me see things differently.”

This is just the beginning: a series of videos is already being planned, covering such issues as physical health during COVID-19. This first cohort of Volunteer Youth Reporters will stay with UNICEF for at least a year. They are working in teams as they hone their skills, but will branch out as their confidence grows to create their own content on any topic they choose. Right now, the dominant topic is COVID-19, but that may well change as the crisis eases.

young reporters
UNICEF, Screenshot 2020.

The Youth Reporters will also cover the work of UNICEF’s other young volunteers, such as the #SadiSiDoma (Plant At Home) initiative – a gardening and zero-waste challenge designed and led by young people to support mental health and raise awareness about the environment. And, in the longer-term, they will work with UNICEF to co-create content for young people across a whole range of themes.

“By working in partnership with our 16 Volunteer Youth Reporters, we are investing not only in their right to be heard, but also in their energy, their creativity, and their connections to other people,” says Patrizia Di Giovanni. “We simply give them the tools for empowerment, to share their experiences and play their part in the global response to COVID-19. After that, our job is to step back and let them fly.”