Vorumaa is a rural county situated in southern Estonia. Each of its municipalities are spread out across its geography, with the main town within the country being Voru. Its rural setting is one that combines beautiful landscape and the embracement of nature but that also presents some very real issues for the people who reside there such as population issues, transport problems, challenges around work and negative perceptions of the area. Yet, despite the challenges facing people belonging to this rural community and outside perceptions of the area, people who live there speak about their home with pride. This alternative narrative highlights what people value about the area such as local customs and culture, and the values that have become intrinsic to rural life.

Within this context, Vorumaa county and Tallinn University are seeking to further galvanize the innovations happening in the area by mobilising community resources in order to co-create innovative social services for people living in the area. As part of this process, they will be running hackathons to help to generate new ideas and solutions to help meet people’s needs. To ground the hackathons in the issues that are pertinent to local people, particularly the lives of vulnerable people, a series of insight stories have been gathered from residents including young people with learning disabilities, newcomers and returners to the area, and adults working in the area. This feature articles summarises the key findings from the stories gathered and presents the argument that local spirit is key to supporting the development of the area. 

Rural life: Beauty and challenges

Despite the various socio-economic issues that the Vorumaa region faces, the prominent discourse found within the stories gathered is one of positivity. As suggested, there is a strong sense of local pride and identity, and this is coupled with people valuing the geography where they live. For example, one woman who has moved away from a city life and into the countryside explains how this has made her a “happier person”. With the land around her home she now has space to rear goats and they bring her “joy and happiness”. Echoing this sentiment, a young man talks about how the rural setting of Vorumaa fits in with his hobbies and interests as he “likes to explore the nature”. This young man feels that the area is a “good environment” and that his social connections with friends and family here are strong. Added to this, he has also found work. This sentiment of appreciating the rural location because of nature and strong connections and relationships with the people who live around is echoed throughout the stories.

Yet we should not assume that people living in the area are not experiencing challenges within their lives. Vorumaa is small in terms of its population and this has implications on the people living there beyond investment in public services. Talking about community spaces and events, an older man explains, “we have got everything, but what we don’t have of late is the people”. In his story, he describes how these spaces are important for bringing people together and offer a range of activities. The issue at present, however, is that, because of people moving away from the area, these spaces are not as widely accessed as they once were. A possible issue that could emerge here is the lack of capacity to keep these spaces open (or a lack of need for them), which could be detrimental for the valued social connections and peer support structures that characterises people’s experience of life in this rural community.  

Using the spirit of resolve to build autonomy

Local resolve is also prevalent in the stories of people who are striving to support themselves or others into more autonomous positions. This is particularly present in the stories of younger people with learning disabilities. A young man from this group, for example, talks about the importance of getting an education in order to get a job and earn money. Furthermore, a young woman with limited verbal communication skills explores how she too would like to find work (preferably in a shop) and also values being able to look after her sister’s child as it enables her to “feel close” to her niece. Both of these stories centre on the notion of being independent and living life as others without disabilities do. 

Linked to this notion of building autonomy in people, particularly young people, a mother describes how her child is learning to use public transport independently. She talks about how the bus stop is 2.5km from her home and that today her “child has their first day travelling alone”. She expresses worry about the child’s ability to “find and the leave the bus at the right stop” and about the child’s tiredness. Despite this, the mother appears keen to get her child travelling independently and being confident in using the existing provision to navigate and overcome logistical and practical hurdles to life in a rural setting. What we can see then in these stories is that for people to live full lives and have the resolve to address the challenges that their world presents, they must first have a sense of their own power, ability and resilience.

Employment, enterprise and finding your way

Within some of the stories the people discuss their working lives, covering topics such as how they got into the field they are in and where they would like to go in the future. One young entrepreneur describes how a local youth centre getting an old camera and doing a film project has led him to set-up his own business doing live broadcasting and hopefully entering over audio-visual markets soon. He describes how this project set his career in motion and his advice to other young people thinking about what they want to do in life is to “do what makes you happy”. Echoing this sentiment, a worker in a cultural job role describes the things she has valued in her job such as the learning of new skills. Yet when reflecting on where she would like her role to take her in the next few years, she does suggest that she is looking to change careers. Her life circumstances have changed – she now has a child – and would like a different field as the “long hours” and weekend working in the cultural industry is now not as fitting in with her lifestyle and other needs. Both of these stories identify the importance of how people’s careers change in their lives, whether that be to expand from a hobby to a business and then into other sectors, or because of the changing circumstances of people’s lives. 

One of the challenges of the area in terms of work is that people often have more than one role – whether paid or unpaid – in order to support themselves and others in their community. As a womandescribes, she is using her new rural home to start a business. In addition to this, she works another job in the area and this suits her as she feels she is an active person. What has surprised her about Vorumaa is just how active others are in the community. This can be related partly to the spirit of local resilience as previously discussed and because of economic issues around service provision (i.e. people need to help each other and not just rely on services) and also wages (i.e. people need to do various works make ends meet). Due to this spirit and level of activeness that woman states how she “feels at home here”.

Vorumaa: There’s no place like home    

The idea of Vorumaa being home and people coming home when either moving there or moving back to the area also emerges from a number of stories. One woman who has recently moved back to the area with her South African husband describes in her story how they are settling in. Expressing positive feelings about the process of moving back home, another woman who has recently moved back to the area states that “I used to think that the place I used to live was the only place I could feel good, but the fact I feel good here has surprised me”. In a similar fashion, a young person, who has returned to the area after travelling, states “everything was so different in India and now coming back to Estonia she feels so lucky.” What we can see from these stories, is that despite some of the complexities of life in a rural area such as transport and forms of employment and some of the macro-issues that affect Vorumaa outlined earlier, there is an overwhelming sense from the stories that for many, there is no place they would rather be. It is this spirit, this resolve and this affection for Vorumaa that is one of the area’s biggest assets and it has been cultivated by the people who live there rather than outside interventions. Furthermore, what the people of Vorumaa understand well is the sense of supporting themselves and others – a collective unity. As one woman says, we are only as “strong as our weakest link” and it is this spirit, combined with resolve, that is support the people who live in Vorumaa to work together to co-create a better future for their rural community. 

These stories have been gathered as part of the CoSIE project -  a pan-European applied research project investigating the co-creation of public services across 10 partner countries. 

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