John Bapst graduate Olivia Johnson took a year off to volunteer as a farmer with an organization in Europe. Credit: Courtesy of Mathilde Prades

While many of her classmates from John Bapst Memorial High School were packing suitcases and boxes for college last summer, Olivia Johnson, now 19 years old, was packing for a different adventure: a gap year in Europe volunteering with the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (or WWOOF) organization.

WWOOF is a nonprofit that pairs volunteers with farmers and growers from all over the world who need a helping hand. In exchange, these volunteers are given housing and meals as well as a cultural and educational experience unlike any other.

“The first farm I went to was a French farm. I was planting and weeding and picking strawberries there in October because it was a warm season for them,” said Johnson, who hails from Levant. “They’d then sell their produce in fancy shops in Paris so people could have fresh, organic French produce.”

Johnson, who graduated from Bapst in 2018, admits she had little to no farming experience before leaving Maine, but that didn’t deter her from getting her hands dirty.

Credit: Courtesy of Mathilde Prades

“I had spent 10 days with the [John Bapst] school in France and London and it was a very structured thing, so I wanted to do something I hadn’t done before and this allowed me to do that,” she said.

On her days off, Johnson would use the money she saved during high school and travel into the city, staying at a hotel or Airbnb before venturing out to sightsee or dine at the local eateries.

“I just loved being able to travel in France, Amsterdam and Brussels. I just wish I hadn’t underestimated how hard it is to speak a different language. I realized I’m much better at reading French than speaking French. But I quickly got comfortable being uncomfortable and got used to being alone and figuring everything out,” Johnson said. “I would stick to the big cities and in the big cities they’d know some English and I could get by, Google it, or there’d be tourists and I’d ask, ‘Where do we go from here?’”

After several weeks, Johnson moved on to another French farm where instead of gardening she worked the land as a modern day shepherdess.

“It was really cool. I would guide [the sheep] on two or three hour walks every day from like 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Then I’d have lunch and go back out and walk them from 3 to 6 p.m.,” she said. “I love all the sheep and lambs and have so many pictures of them. It’s so funny because all the other girls [I was with from WWOOF] didn’t know anything about sheep either and we all bonded in that way.”

She struck up an instant friendship with one fellow WWOOF volunteer named Mathilde.

“She was from France and she invited me back to her hometown. I got to meet some of her friends, which were all my age. It was so nice not being a tourist. I had someone who knew their way around and could say this is an area where all these famous kings were buried, or this is a famous forest,” Johnson said.

[Educational farming exchange fills gaps, but not likely a solution for Maine farm labor shortages]

At times, homesickness hit Johnson hard and when it did she’d video chat with her mom, Heidi Johnson, who always had lots of encouraging words to share.

“I knew Olivia would get homesick. Luckily she got over it pretty quickly and didn’t really let it affect her adventures,” Heidi Johnson said.

Halfway through her trip, Olivia Johnson’s family traveled to Europe to visit her.

“I doubt I ever would have gone to France and England but because she was there, my 82-year-old mom got to fulfill a lifelong dream of going to Europe along with my sister and I,” Heidi Johnson said. “We got to see the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Tower Bridge in London. So her trip was a trip of a lifetime but in so many ways it was for others as well.”

When her family returned home to Maine, Johnson boarded a plane for her third and final WWOOF destination – Huntington Castle & Gardens in Ireland. The castle is a hotel surrounded by acres and acres of farmland and gardens. There, Johnson’s duties included tidying up rooms for guests and serving tea on the weekends.

Credit: Courtesy of Mathilde Prades

“It was snowdrop season, that’s a beautiful little flower that looks like a buttercup. It’s very popular in that region and people come from all over to see those, so I helped out in the castle’s tea room, which is like a coffee shop. I don’t drink coffee but I actually learned how to make an espresso, a cappuccino and a latte there in Ireland. The hardest part was perfecting the foam,” Johnson reminisced.

While in Ireland, Johnson divided her time between serving tea inside the castle and being outside the castle helping with lambing season.

“I’ve pulled out a lamb, I’ve bottle fed a lamb, and I’ve made pens for lambs. I’ve done basically everything with a lamb now. It’s a life skill I didn’t think I would have, but I’m really glad I have it now because who can say they’ve helped birth a lamb?” Johnson said. “I don’t think this would have been an experience I would’ve ever done if not for this organization.”

Johnson learned far more than how to care for livestock and grow organic fruits and vegetables during her gap year. She learned how to live on a budget, how to be resourceful, how to get from point A to point B and who she was as a person at the very root of her being.

“I know for a lot of people taking a gap year is a time to figure out what they want to do. What I figured out most is to trust your gut. I know me far more than I did before going. I know what I can do,” Johnson said. “I’ve always been very studious and always thought about my grades and I do love school, but taking a gap year I found out who I was as a person instead of who I was as a student.”

Johnson said she is eager, excited and ready more than ever to take on the workload at the University of Maine in Orono where she will be majoring in English.

“My dream of being an editor hasn’t changed. Even coming back, people are like, ‘You want to major in English? That’s not where all the jobs are at.’ I’ve learned from going there that just because everyone says that isn’t the best thing to do, I’ll make the best of what I’m going to do and I’ll be happy doing it,” Johnson said. “I’m very excited to go to UMaine because I know a ton of friends there and it’s close by. Now that I’ve traveled, I’m grateful for everything I have and I can say I’ve truly chosen to go to this school. I’ll have hopefully little to no debt when I graduate and I’ll have a great education and all this life experience.”

She’ll also continue to pinch her pennies, watch her budget and her grades closely so that she can continue to travel and learn more about herself and the world around her whenever the opportunity presents itself.

“I think I’ll always have the travel bug. I am very interested in Tokyo or somewhere like that just to see how different it is and studying abroad is definitely a future goal of mine,” Johnson said. “Taking a gap year is not for everyone and just because something isn’t going to be the particular field you’re going into, doesn’t mean you can’t try it. I liked learning I could do it and I’m very proud I did.”

This story was originally published in Bangor Metro’s September 2019 issue. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.