Firefighters who ignited community life in the village of Čepice

Čepice is a small village in southwestern Bohemia. Although most of the residents commute to jobs outside of the village, there are many community events on the weekends and evenings, mostly organized by the local volunteer firefighters’ brigade. The firefighters submitted an application to our program, The Community in Which We Live, in the spring of 2017. Despite the fact that no one in the village had any previous experience with writing grant applications, they succeeded in our call for proposals and joined the program. 

The village of Čepice is located in the Pilsen region along the Otava River. Outside of the region it is mostly known to canoeists. Čepice has a total of 78 permanent residents, including descendants from local farming families and owners of weekend homes in the village who have moved there full-time. There is practically no new development due to flooding risks. The village does not have any of the typical drivers of community life, such as a school or preschool or local companies.

Instead, it is the volunteer firefighters’ brigade that brings people together by putting on a spectrum of community events over the course of the year. Most of the villagers participate regularly, and for the big events like the firemen’s ball or the Lent carnival parade, friends and relatives from outside of Čepice join in. In these cases the number of visitors actually exceeds the number of residents. The firefighters’ clubhouse, which residents built out of a former henhouse, is the only indoor community place where residents can meet and spend time together. Until last fall, the building was surrounded by an empty open space.

The villagers sought to turn this site into a community place and sent in an application to our program. When we visited Čepice during the selection process, a team of three people greeted us enthusiastically, standing in front of a table piled high with homemade cakes and sandwiches. We quickly found out that hospitality is an innate quality of each and every resident in ČepiceJ. Two weeks later our selection jury choose Čepice as one of eight projects for the 2017-18 programming period.

Children’s day celebrations, ‘witch burning’ spring bonfires, balls – the firefighters have been putting on these and other events for years and know how to do so efficiently. The process we use in The Community in Which We Live program, which is based on broad participation of residents in planning, design and construction, felt foreign to them. Our experience has shown us that the extra energy this process requires pays off. People who are involved from the get-go in a community project develop a deeper relationship to the place and are more likely to take on the role of stewards, maintaining the site and making sure others don’t vandalize or damage it. The process also strengthens residents’ relations with each other, as they work side by side, and helps them learn how to set priorities and build consensus as a group.

The crew in Čepice didn’t see this at first but as the project progressed, most gave the process a chance. And as they saw small but perceptible changes taking place in their own community, they began to see the value of the process in strengthening community.

We know it was tough at times. As one member of the project team said: “It wasn’t always easy, but we proved to ourselves that we are able to work together to achieve a common goal. It brought us closer together.

Residents worked hard and put in countless hours of volunteer work.

They built a gazebo with a campfire circle, a children’s playground and sports court.

Just as importantly, they experienced a new sense of community. The project leader put it this way: “Thanks to this project we began noticing each other more, listening to each other and we learned that even though we have different opinions, we are capable of reaching agreement and implementing a demanding project together. The differences between us and our differing worldviews enrich the work and the project itself. They allow us to perfect the project and work out every last detail. They motivate us because we have a shared goal, a job we have to finish. And because we were all involved from the very beginning, no one asks questions like, this could have been done differently, why didn’t they do it like this? Everything is connected and why did we do it this particular way? Because we created it from beginning to end. Everyone had an equal chance to express their opinion about the whole project and advocate for his or her point of view and at the end of the planning phase we voted for which point of view to use in the project. Thus here in our village we built exactly what we wanted with the help of Via Foundation and the architect and the town government. The project culminated in the grand opening, where over 70 people came together. That’s almost the entire population of our village.”

Our dream is to see more and more places like Čepice in the Czech Republic, where the community works together for a common goal. To that end we will be starting a new iteration of the program later in the spring. In the meantime, we can recommend Čepice as a great place to visit, particularly during holidays and events!