How a Work & Travel USA Alum Became a Changemaker in Her Own Community

Authored By:

Work Exchanges

By Gresë Koca, CIEE Work & Travel USA 2016 participant and 2016 Civic Leadership Summit Fellow

Guxim and I participated in the CIEE Work & Travel USA program in 2016 (Want to meet Guxim and read his story? Check out his Work Exchanges blog post from September 2017!). We stayed in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware and worked for a small, but very popular, ice-cream store located in the boardwalk by the ocean. Luckily for us, we had the chance to live in the same house with our ice-cream store colleagues who were exchange program participants from all around the world. Since we got to learn first-hand not only of the American culture and lifestyle but about cultures of many other countries at the same time, CIEE Work & Travel USA was a very culturally enriching experience. Spending time abroad helps people to shape their personality, to know themselves better, and to create a global network, which is what the CIEE Work & Travel USA program provided for us. But as we like to call it, “the cherry on top” of this whole experience was our participation in the CIEE Civic Leadership Summit 2016. We both were accepted into the program and spent a couple of wonderful and productive days in Washington DC with over 60 bright youngsters selected from all around the world to learn about how to better our communities. And that is where it all started! 

Photo for blog post How a Work & Travel USA Alum Became a Changemaker in Her Own Community
Gresë and Guxim during their Work & Travel USA program sharing a meal with friends

At the Civic Leadership Summit (CLS), we had workshops and sessions with CIEE mentors who were eager to motivate us in our change-maker journey. Moreover, CLS gave us the chance to discuss a variety of problems which we face in our home countries and discovered that many of these problems are common in different countries, as well. Problems such as levels of corruption, freedom of movement (in Kosovo we still need visas to get almost anywhere out of country), lack of active citizenship and youth participation in decision-making, low economy in developing countries, hate crime; or even problems with a global effect, such as environmental issues.  Similar problems mean similar methods of solution. So, we benefited significantly by exchanging information and ideas on how we can improve the situation back home. I particularly remember that one of our duties at CLS was to pitch an idea of an impactful project that we were willing to implement in our communities. That is where the idea of Green Art Fest (GAF) - an event that raises environmental awareness - was first discussed and presented. Of course, the draft idea of GAF was completed and improved by the constructive and thoughtful feedback from the fellows and the mentors at CLS. Enthusiastic and motivated to make a change, Guxim and I decided to bring our idea to life once we came back home! 

Photo for blog post How a Work & Travel USA Alum Became a Changemaker in Her Own Community
Gresë and Guxim with fellow CLS participants

Once we came back to Kosovo, we started talking to our friends, family, and colleagues about the idea of bringing together a group who would contribute towards environmental responsibility in the city. Air pollution, forest cutting, construction in protected areas, waste management, pollution of rivers and lakes, are few among many serious environmental problems Kosovo faces. Considering the unavoidable need to start caring about the environment we live in, we were met with a positive attitude and a welcoming atmosphere for such an organization.

One way to implement a project, to fundraise, and to gather people around an idea, is to start a non-profit organization. And that is exactly what we did. By talking to many people that we know, we were capable of bringing together a group of youngsters to attend some informal meetings in coffee-places where we would discuss environmental topics. We brought a friend, and then the friend brought a friend and so on. We established a non-formal community who were willing to make a change. The second step was to formalize the group and register it as a non-profit organization so we could apply for funds offered from various institutions. Through Keep It Green NGO, we wanted to make a difference at the grassroots level, so we focused our activities in the area of the most polluted city in Southeastern Europe: Obiliq, Kosovo. Obiliq is the city were Guxim comes from. It is also the home to two coal power plants, which are the largest polluters in the country. According to the World Bank Group statistics, the pollution caused by these coal power plants exceeded European Union standards three times over. 

Photo for blog post How a Work & Travel USA Alum Became a Changemaker in Her Own Community
Gresë and colleagues planning for Green Art Fest

The first edition of Green Art Fest, in 2017, focused on raising awareness on air pollution and the damage that power plants cause in Kosovo. We wanted to draw the attention of civil society and stakeholders towards Obiliq, and we chose art as a method to do this. We drew the attention of the media and the public through environmentally-themed open painting in nature, photography exhibitions, games, and activities. We were also able to get local decision makers, such as the mayor of the city, and city officials to come and discuss citizens’ concerns about the pollution. This project was fully supported financially by the U.S. Embassy in Kosovo through an open grant that they provide for alumni of state-sponsored programs in the United States. 

Photo for blog post How a Work & Travel USA Alum Became a Changemaker in Her Own Community
Meeting with U.S. Embassy Public Affairs Staff in Pristina, Kosovo following the 2018 Green Art Fest.  We presented Richard Mei, Public Affairs Officer, with the winning portrait from the festival. A CIEE representative, Lauren Kelly, also attended our event.

Seeing the impact and the interest we received by the community, we decided to make Green Art Fest an annual event. Each year we would tackle a different environmental issue or promote a solution. In 2018, for the second annual year of Green Art Fest, we wanted to get people to think and reflect on their personal actions towards a better environment in the future. The slogans of this edition were “Hello Tomorrow” and “I’m starting with the man in the mirror”.  In 2018, we increased the number of participatory painters to more than 40, thus doubling them compared to last year.  We had hundreds of “green” photography submissions to be part of the exhibition and many young people submitted their short documentary films, which portray environmental issues in Kosovo. Flyers with information on how to go green at home, work and in the community were shared, and youngsters with green business ideas had the chance to pitch them in front of the GAF ’18 audience.  By bringing together a community of dedicated volunteers and getting the support of many institutions as partners, we successfully completed the second edition of GAF. Currently, we are tirelessly preparing for the next GAF, the bigger one, which will be ready for the summer of 2019. 

Photo for blog post How a Work & Travel USA Alum Became a Changemaker in Her Own Community
Guxim at the Green Art Fest giving the welcome speech
Photo for blog post How a Work & Travel USA Alum Became a Changemaker in Her Own Community
Gresë with Green Art Fest volunteers, 2018

Keep It Green currently has 6 staff members who work on a volunteer basis (some of them are fellow U.S. exchange program alumni) and more than 40 helpers from all around Kosovo who serve as volunteers in our activities. Even though it is a young organization, Keep It Green is very active with initiatives other than the Green Art Fest. We have organized a series of workshops on the concept of “reduce, reuse, recycle” with international experts in Kosovo and we have run multiple campaigns on waste management, recycling and water preservation.

Recently, we have successfully completed the project of “Solar Camp”, a three-day outdoor camp where we had trainings on the potential of Kosovo’s solar energy production. The participants of the Solar Camp were university students with a dedication to learn more about renewable energy. They applied online and were selected based on their motivation, while the participation was free of charge and all expenses including transportation, accommodation, equipment and meals were covered. 

Photo for blog post How a Work & Travel USA Alum Became a Changemaker in Her Own Community
The Solar Camp group

The participants of this program had the chance to see solar panels and solar equipment up close for the first time, to understand how they work, and to use them in the campsite for energy necessities. The project helped us share useful information on renewables and in various discussions and debates on the hot topic of energy security in Kosovo. We like to choose creative methods of implementing our projects and to encourage “learning by doing”, which is precisely why we did an outdoor camping. This way the participants could connect with the nature and each other, see firsthand how the energy from the sun can be used in practice, promote clean camping with minimum waste, and promote eco-tourism. 

Photo for blog post How a Work & Travel USA Alum Became a Changemaker in Her Own Community
Location: Campsite at “Guri i Plakes”, borderline between Obiliq and Drenas, Kosovo

One thing that we are very proud of as an NGO is how we helped to create the approval of the first environmental law in Kosovo, which gives the city of Obiliq a special status as a hazardous environmental area. It also brings investments for the revival of the city which, in the future, will not be known for the levels of pollution, but rather for the wonderful community and events such as Green Art Fest. We campaigned and directly approached the parliament members to talk to them about the importance of their vote supporting the approval of this law. Currently, the law has been approved and now we are very involved and working closely with stakeholders (municipality officials and institutions responsible for the law-implementation, as well as civic society organizations in the area) in monitoring the law implementation and making sure that the citizens will be granted their lawful rights to a better environment and less pollution. 

Guxim and I are very passionate about the work that we do through Keep It Green, and very thankful for the large group of supporters that we have in each of our projects. Today, as we look back to all the good things that have been done, we are very grateful for our experience in the United States through the CIEE Work & Travel USA program. We see it as a spark that has initiated our changemaker journey! One thing that remains as a plan is to expand our community with more exchange program alumni who are willing to dedicate their time to Keep It Green and our initiatives. Every single person can do their share to help. Many projects are on their way for 2019 and there remains a lot of work to be done, but we are confident, enthusiastic and keen to keep up with initiatives that will make a change for the better! If anyone is willing to contribute towards our mission, we are a very welcoming community. Should you be interested to join us, you can easily reach us through email or our social media pages!



For more information on the CIEE Work & Travel USA program, please visit our website.