‘I quit my job and ended my marriage to volunteer in Greece with refugees'

Holding three week old Matteo in her arms, Holly Penalver knows she has gained more than she ever imagined from volunteering.

Four years ago, she went to Greece to help with the refugee crisis, expecting to stay for a few months before returning to the UK.

But after just a week, the now 34-year-old realised she needed to stay long term because of the overwhelming number of people who needed help.

Holly made the heartbreaking decision to leave her career as a paediatric nurse behind and ended her marriage to move permanently to Greece.

But through her work, she met her new partner Stjin van der Leest, who was also working as a volunteer.

Together they have travelled to Bosnia, Serbia and back to Greece, helping at refugee camps as they spring up.

Now in Stjin’s home country of the Netherlands, the couple have just welcomed baby Matteo to their family – but hope to get back to leading the volunteering effort as soon as he’s old enough and the Covid situation is safe enough for them to travel.

Holly says: ‘My whole life now is just because of volunteering – I work with volunteers, I met my partner through volunteering and now we have a baby because of volunteering together.

‘It has been a crazy but incredibly important four and a half years since I first left the UK to go to Greece.’

Her journey started in 2009 as she prepared to graduate with a psychology degree from Loughborough University.

‘Like a lot of people, I wanted to do a gap year after uni and I thought I would take this year to think about my career and do some volunteering as I knew I had something to give,’ she says.

‘When I looked online, I just found so many companies who were all charging a lot of money and I just wasn’t keen on their practices – like sending an 18-year-old to teach in a school, with no idea about teaching.

‘I felt like there had to be a better way of doing this, so I thought maybe I would look at the possibility of setting something up myself.’

She spent time travelling and researching but it was after returning to university to study paediatric nursing that her idea really started to gain momentum.

In 2012, Holly had to go on an elective placement abroad as part of her final year and put a lot of work into finding a project in Malawi and through that, she developed links to other small charities and organisations that needed volunteers but did not have the resources to find them themselves.

After coming home, Holly launched Indigo Volunteers and was officially registered as a charity in 2014. The idea was basically to act as a volunteer matchmaking service, finding people who wanted to help and grassroots organisations who needed assistance.

This was all done without a fee and focused on placing people in roles that would suit their skills. 

After the website was set up, the charity grew quickly with more volunteers and organisations coming on board.

At the same time, Holly got married and started a job working as a nurse at Chelsea and Westminster hospital.

However, in 2016, she decided to go part-time as the charity was taking up more and more of her time.

Later that year, as the refugee crisis took hold in Europe, Holly was asked to go to Thessaloniki in Greece by a charity called Help Refugees (now called Choose Love) as although many people were going to help, there was limited coordination, something which Holly was now skilled at after setting up the charity.

She says: ‘It was so chaotic – there were hundreds of people turning up and you had carpenters working in a school and your teachers working in the warehouse and everyone was a bit muddled. There was just basically a massive lack of coordination because there wasn’t a centralised hub. 

‘Help Refugees funded me to go over to Greece as they knew about Indigo and knew there would be a huge benefit in volunteers being coordinated more.

‘Initially, I planned to go there for four months. After the first week, I thought, “I cannot go back home, this is such a serious need”. I knew this wasn’t something I could do in four months.’

Holly quit her job and told her then-husband that she wanted to stay in Greece. Although he considered coming out after six months, she knew they were heading on different paths and they ended up getting divorced.

‘He said he was coming out but I could hear in his voice it wasn’t what he wanted,’ she says.

‘He had stuff going on in his life too and there was just this realisation that we wanted different things.

‘I was so hard and such an awful experience. I was by myself, in another country and my marriage just ended.

‘We never had any breaks or discussion really either – it was just one minute we were married, and then I was moving to Greece and then we were getting divorced.

‘There was never a second in my mind where I wanted to go back home though – I just knew that I needed to be in Greece and that was what I needed to do with my future. I knew this was the path I wanted and that just wasn’t going to make him happy.’

Holly got to work helping to organise volunteers and coordinate the effort, as well as volunteering herself in a medical clinic one day a week.

At one point, her office was based in a warehouse in northern Greece and there she met Stjin.

She laughs: ‘He was working in construction, building shelters and things at the camp. We met at the warehouse, both very sweaty and smelly because it was dusty and dirty work a lot of the time.

‘We got talking and realised we had a lot of things in common. Before coming to Greece, he had been in Iraq working with Yazidi communities.’

Shortly after, Stjin moved to Serbia as another refugee hotspot sprung up.

A few months later, as her marriage officially ended, Holly decided to go to Serbia to help there, and moved in with Stjin.

‘You can’t mess around in these situations,’ she laughs.

Together they worked with refugees there through the cold hard winter in Belgrade and their relationship developed.

When part of the border opened up in Bosnia, there was another flood of refugees there and within three days, Stjin and Holly packed up their bags and moved there.

Then, as the situation changed again, they moved to the Greek island of Samos in March 2019, again helping to coordinate volunteers and providing help where they could.

In 2020, as the pandemic hit, the pair were thinking about their future. Although Holly has had some paid work throughout, Stjin has always been a volunteer.

Holly says: ‘He’d decided it was time to get a salaried role, perhaps for a bigger charity so he could work at doing this.

‘He had decided to leave the role he was in and then we went to Holland to visit his family, and within about five days, we found out I was pregnant.’

Holly decided to stay in the UK for her health appointments but due to the second lockdown, she ended up stuck in Holland, where she has been throughout this year. There, she gave birth to baby Matteo, now three weeks old.

The couple are happily settling into new parenthood – but plan to go back to refugee work soon.

Holly says: ‘We’re looking to be here for a handful of months and then go back to our work – potentially to Bosnia but we’re not sure just yet.’

For now, Stijn is covering Holly’s maternity leave at Indigo until October.

Although volunteering completely turned her world upside, Holly is so thankful for what it has brought to her life.

She says: ‘Indigo has placed thousands of volunteers across Europe and it’s been so amazing.

‘I’m so proud of my work, all that we’ve achieved and what I have built in the last decade.’

To find out more or to donate to Indigo Volunteers, visit the website.

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Volunteers’ Week takes place 1-7 June and highlights the amazing ways people can give back and help others. To get involved click here. 

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