I was living in the capital of the European Union from February until December. I had kind of a mission. I mission which made some people frightened, many of them thought that “it is really noble to do, but it must be tough”, and just a few persons told me that they could do the same. But, I had a really special experience there. I lived with mentally challenged people.
So, what did I do there?
I was working as a volunteer at an organization called l’Arche which aims to help those who are different from us and have some learning disabilities. L’Arche was founded in France, but now it is really international – but, really, really, Australia, Africa, America, Asia, all we miss is Antarctica. Every community is different, they have different challenges, different methods and mentality, which is not a big surprise since they are so far away from each other. But, they have the same goal: to help those whom need to be helped.
I won’t write you the whole history of l’Arche. The guy who started to organization realized that there are some mentally challenged persons in psychiatry who don’t need to be there. Sometimes their situation became even worse in those institutes. So, he decided to start his community: at the beginning he was living with some people who had Down syndrome and he taught them the everyday stuffs. Today, l’Arche is a huge organization with several volunteers and workers.
L’Arche in Brussels
There are four houses and a day centre in Brussels, and there are even more communities in Belgium, at the French and the Dutch part, too. I was living in one of the houses in Brussels with ten core members (= mentally disabled persons) and usually three more volunteers together. Besides us, there was another volunteer who just came to work during the day, but did not sleep in the house and three educators. Sometimes we needed more people, but usually it was a good number of helpers, especially measured to the situation in Hungary…
As a volunteer, I had a special situation because of the timing of my life. Usually, volunteers arrive in September and leave in September or just come for the summer period. I, on the other hand, arrived in February and left in December, so I met the “old volunteers” who had already had 6 months of experiences and the “summer volunteers” who just came for a few weeks and the “new volunteers” who arrived in September, and needed some help and animation. There were volunteers from every part of the world, so I had the chance to have some new friends from very exotic places like Mexico (yes, I am planning to go and visit you, Ré!) and to gain some insight to very different culture (like Mexican people and the first snow. Or what they eat in Ecuador… o.O Which I wanna try out and really don’t wanna taste at the same time!).
My main tasks were kind of the tasks of a housemaid: cleaning, preparing food (for 10-12 people, I am a master chef now!), and on the weekends organizing some leisure time experiences with and for the core members. Sometimes I really felt like a mixture of a mother and a cleaning lady, especially when I finally spoke French and understood the core members, not just the volunteers (oh, yeah, in the first two months I did not speak AT ALL French, it was quite a funny challenge sometimes). After some months, the everyday life was not a big deal anymore… but then I started to think about the educational part of my job, the opportunities we can use to teach the core members to be more autonomous. Actually, sometimes it was not even a conscious thing, it just came. In any case, it was one of the best part of my job to see the progress we made. (The other one was the love… of food. We had SO MUCH FOOD in the house. And Nutella ALWAYS. Haha, just kidding, I am planning to write a post about the other part, the memorable and funny moments.)
Before getting in Brussels, I did not have any courses about this topic, the topic of mental challenges, I did not receive any detailed document about the core members, not even their “disorders”, just an average plan about my job. I actually did not miss these information, to tell the truth, I did not see the dangerous part of it and petit á petit I got to know the important stuffs as I got to know the core members. That was the plan of the house leader who was afraid to give the bios of the persons in the first place, because she wanted me/us to know the person and not the disease. I have heard about other houses where the future volunteers received the personal descriptions, so they can have a more professional attitude – to be honest, I can understand both point of views. It is better to know the personality in the first place without any preconceptions – on the other hand, it is needed to know the details, because you cannot always separate the core member from his/her mental problems and what if you do something which can hurt them? Hard, philosophical question for another time.
As far as I know, those whom are interested in this project, but not sure whether they would like it or they could do it, can have a week, a “trial period” in the houses. So, if you feel like, just apply! Here is the Belgian site and here is the international.