Oihana Trojaola has collaborated with the Foundation since its inception. She actively participated in our audiovisual ‘The Memory of the Pilgrims’ and in our book ‘The year 2020 on the Camino’- as a pilgrim in Spain and active volunteer of Christian Reception in Santiago, but also – since she resides in Dublin – as a very active member of Camino Society of Ireland. Today we meet her again in Santiago and we want to take this opportunity to interview her about the work of volunteers on the Camino, in particular, about the work carried out by Christian Reception in the cathedral and Pilgrim’s Office of Compostela.

-First of all, a general question: What does it mean to you to be a volunteer? What do you think volunteers mean in the context of the Camino de Santiago?

Being a volunteer for me is giving without receiving any financial reward in return. It is helping whoever needs it through my qualities, abilities and skills and to contribute my grain of sand by doing good in society. It is an experience that allows me to help and meet people, expand my circle of friends, learn from others, exchange ideas and almost always lend a shoulder to cry on or bring a smile to soothe the soul a little.

The Camino de Santiago without volunteers would be something very different, in fact I would almost dare to say that it would not exist. Many should be grateful for the time invested by those people who give their all to help others without expecting anything more than a “thank you” or a hug. If the pilgrim had to pay expenses for the variety of services in which non-profit volunteers help, the Camino would not be suitable for many. Throughout and at the end of the Camino, work continues to welcome and allow each pilgrim to live through a unique experience, although I must mention that today a minority of pilgrims demand a lot and do not give anything in return to maintain it, which means that many services do not receive enough aid to be able to be able to cover the minimum expenses needed to continue along the Camino.

-At the Foundation we receive many questions about how to become a volunteer, we have interviewed people linked to Hospitaleros Voluntarios and we would like you to introduce volunteering with the cathedral of Santiago: Could you say something about how to become a volunteer for the cathedral?

ACC, Christian Welcome on the Caminos de Santiago, aims to serve pilgrims by promoting the spiritual aspect of the pilgrimage for those people who wish to volunteer and give to the Camino something of what they have received on it. “Welcome” is the most important aspect.

At the beginning of each year, through their website https://acologíacristianaenloscaminosdesantiago.org/ and social networks, as well as those of the Pilgrim’s Office and the Cathedral, they usually start the volunteer campaign either at the International Reception Center to the Pilgrim in Santiago de Compostela or in one of the various hostels on the Camino de Santiago. There are also those who come and request information directly at the Pilgrim’s Office.

As a volunteer in Santiago, we carry out tasks of delivering the Compostela to pilgrims and welcoming them to Monte de Gozo. For those who prefer volunteering in a shelter, the tasks and details are indicated by the shelter they will attend.

I consider that to be an ACC volunteer certain qualities are required: being empathetic, open-minded, kind, available for service, patient, knowing how to work as a team, mastering more than one language (although not essential, it helps a lot to better welcome the pilgrim), proactive, responsible, sociable and having had some experience as a pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago.

-So we come to your experience, first the practical side: what does a volunteer encounter? What does volunteer work at ACC consist of?

The volunteers at the International Pilgrim Welcome Office mainly receive the pilgrim at the end of their Camino and a minority, no less important, before starting their Camino by acquiring the credential and requesting information.

The new computer system has made the Compostela application process easier and faster, reducing the waiting time for those who have little time at their disposal and allowing pilgrims who need more time to be accommodated.

The emotions of the pilgrims at the end of the Camino are very diverse and you have to know how to handle them with your left hand. In my experience, identifying myself as a volunteer and as a pilgrim wanting to be welcomed as I should like to be, helps a lot. The needs of each pilgrim must be met and given the necessary welcoming time. On many occasions the welcome ends in a hug or in tears, even with a brief break to regain strength and continue with the welcoming.

-And then what is not practical, what is found in that experience, in your case… how many years ago?

It was in the summer of 2018 that I first participated in the volunteer program for a couple of weeks through ACC’s invitation to Camino Society of Ireland volunteers. Since then I have personally contacted and participated every year except 2020 due to the pandemic travel restrictions. This year, due to my profession, I was there twice, during Easter and in the summer.

Giving shelter at the end of the Camino is an incredible experience and that is why I usually do the Camino and then volunteer. I always insist that “you have to live it to understand it.” This year’s experience has already motivated me to plan dates for 2024, which I will look forward to at the beginning of the year to request them once I have worked the details of my Camino.

-What have you found in that experience as a volunteer to continue repeating? Does it bring different things to the pilgrimage?

We pilgrims know the special bond that is created with other pilgrims along the Camino, as one pilgrim told me this year: I have a new “Camilia”, thus describing the family formed along the Camino. Among the volunteers, another Camilia is also created, which is made up of people of different nationalities and ages, who year after year we try to meet to share hosting experiences while we support and guide those who come to the program for the first time. It should be noted that all the staff at the Pilgrim’s Office are very patient with the volunteers, they help us a lot to learn and always thank us for our collaboration.

My experience has allowed me to make new friends who have supported me through thick and thin during volunteering, whether it was to share a hug or to go and buy ice cream. I have also learned much more about Santiago, the Cathedral, the Camino and Galicia on a historical, cultural and artistic level, thanks to very special people who have incredibly rich and sometimes unique knowledge in specific areas that are worth much more than a monetary remuneration.

-In 2018 you told us about your experience as a pilgrim, how you came to the Camino… After so many years on pilgrimage, with volunteer work, in associations… what do you think the Camino de Santiago has contributed to your life?

I could summarize that it has helped me a lot to develop an emotional connection with people and be more empathetic, to have social sensitivity. It has also changed my perception of life by knowing how to be grateful for the small things, to live in the moment and be motivated by life, to improve as a leader and to be a little minimalist in terms of what I own.

-And finally, we would like to know a little about your projects: do you have any future projects linked to the Camino de Santiago? Do you have any dreams left to fulfill?

I consider it important to continue learning, I don’t mean anything specific but there are always a variety of courses, talks or information to discover. There are also support projects linked to the Camino and/or teaching to provide information on everything related to the Camino de Santiago. Also, as I have already said, it is still just as important to continue with my voluntary work at the Pilgrim’s Office.