Monday, September 10, 2018

My experience volunteering at Zhuravichi Orphanage with the Chernobyl Children’s Project

The challenge with writing about an experience like my 2 weeks volunteering at Zhuravichi Orphanage is that language often fails us when it comes to conveying what truly profound experiences feel like. It’s impossible not to slip into platitudes about how life changing and perspective shifting a trip like this was (and it most certainly was both those things!)-which is frustrating as these phrases are useful, but don’t even scratch the surface of what an experience like this means. At the volunteer weekend in Buxton I attended in April before the trip, the lovely volunteers who had previously been to Belarus used these phrases constantly.  I certainly believed them- but it is all but impossible to convey how much a trip like this will change you and how you perceive the world.
I admit that I was a big ball of anxiety in the days before the trip, but once I got to the airport and met the rest of the volunteers these fears melted away. This was clearly the start of an adventure with lots of kind, open hearted people, and the fact that so many of the volunteers had already been countless times and were so devoted to the charity was both inspiring and a comfort.
Once we’d got through the standard fun and games of air travel (questionable airline food and intimidating security checks) my initial impressions of Belarus were of its beauty and emptiness. Vast all but deserted highways surrounded by thick birch forests. Houses were few and far between on the drive to the orphanage but were like little gems dotted along the roadside. Despite the poverty of the majority of their inhabitants, the houses were painted in vivid reds, blues and greens, often with beautifully manicured flower gardens.
The orphanage itself was equally beautified from the outside- the grounds brim with colourful flower beds (which the residents help to maintain.)  We arrived at the isolated location late at night so didn’t get to meet the residents until the next morning. I could feel the nerves bubbling as we went to meet some of the 200+ young people who we’d be spending the next two weeks with. After about ten minutes I couldn’t remember why I’d felt anxious, it was the warmest welcome I’ve ever experienced. I was hugged and kissed on the cheek by countless strangers who were so genuinely pleased to meet me, and it wasn’t long before we were playing catch and joking around like friends.

 I have a tin ear for languages and had failed to learn anything in Russian except ‘hello’ before the trip. This did worry me at first, but the residents soon put me at ease. They didn’t care that I didn’t speak their language, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that language and cultural barriers didn’t seem to factor into our interactions at all! The resident’s lives follow a strict routine at the orphanage, with work (on the allotments and gardens), meals and rest occurring in a monotonous cycle day after day. The annual volunteer visit from the CCP briefly shatters this routine, and the joy it brings the residents is evident from their beaming faces.
Throughout the trip I was constantly struck by how little it took bring happiness to the residents. We did so many fun activities with them over the two weeks- making bracelets and hand puppets, all forms of sports and even a massive water fight (the volunteers were very outnumbered but put up an impressive fight!). But the main cause of joy felt by both residents and volunteers came from simply interacting. Even without a shared language, and in moments where we had no activity to offer them, smiling and laughing with these people who are normally starved of fun, meaningful interactions was a profound experience. This feeling of shared joy is infectious, and is what has left me itching to return to Zhuravichi.

Sadly there are too few carers at the orphanage to provide this form of meaningful regular interaction, which all the residents desire and deserve. Alongside this is the more deeply engrained issue of Belarussian attitudes to disability. The existence of institutions like Zhuravichi- hidden deep in the countryside (and not known about by many Belarusians) is symptomatic of a belief that those with disabilities cannot take part in society, and should be kept separate and secret. Shattering this misconception is at the heart of the CCP’s ethos, and the progress the charity has made on this front is astounding. The carers were kind and gentle with the residents, but I was nevertheless struck by the lack of interaction they had with the less able residents. Every evening we visited a different group of residents around the orphanage, arriving armed with activities and greeted by cheerful residents welcoming us into their home. These sessions were a pleasure and filled with so many fun activities- making loom bands, played with remote control cars, and one night getting thoroughly thrashed at table tennis by a particularly skilled resident.
 However behind the more capable individuals able to come up and engage with us were rooms filled with less able residents.
 From my perspective as a person who works in a specialist autism school, these residents were the ones most clearly in need of attention- but here they were the most starved of it. The interactions I had in these rooms were the most important of the whole trip, but I won’t deny I had to mentally brace myself before entering these rooms. The residents (many of whom were clearly autistic) normally sat round the edges of the room, often staring into space with nothing provided to engage or stimulate them. However with a gentle approach, lots of smiling encouragement and sensory toys (so many bubbles!) it often took very little time to get even the most seemingly closed off residents engaged at some level- some of the smiles I got in those rooms will stay with me for the rest of my life.

It is not the carer’s fault that they don’t see the value in engaging with these residents. If I had grown up in a society that dismisses disabled people so totally I would struggle to grasp that, what may look just like playing with bubbles and light up toys is actually a powerful way of reaching those residents who are most often dismissed or overlooked. This is undeniably a depressing state of affairs, but the situation is certainly not without hope. Breaking down these entrenched social beliefs may appear an insurmountable task- but knowing what Linda (the head of the CCP) has achieved already in this country makes more positive change in the future feel inevitable. When the charity first found Zhuravichi it was bleak with few toys, no wheelchairs or other aids for physically disabled children, and many residents spent their entire lives in a cot. Although conditions at the orphanage are still far from ideal, for most residents they are a world away from this grim picture, and that gives me hope that change will come eventually for the more profoundly disabled residents too. From my experience volunteering- this lack of knowledge of sensory stimulation amongst the orphanage staff stands as one of the most pressing issues to address. Although cultural differences in understandings of disability will inevitably make this a complex task, it is vital something more is done for the sake of those autistic residents in the background, who deserve to feel seen and connected with more than once a year.
Throughout the trip, I was struck by the talent of many of the residents.  Through the CCP’s support the orphanage has hired an instructor who runs the craft room, where select residents spend time sewing, painting and perfecting other intricate forms of craft that blew my artistically challenged mind. One resident in particular has an incredible talent for hair. Every time she saw me and my messy bun she’d sit me down and after 2 minutes I’d have the most beautifully plaited hairdo which I can never hope to replicate. These girls are wonderful, and it is wonderful they get to spend their time developing these skills (they also sell their creations to visitors; the money raised is put back into buying supplies for the craft room.) However, seeing these skilled young people mastering complex crafts begs the question, what are they doing in an institution?

This seems bizarre to a British perspective, and rightly so. Many of the residents are deaf, mute or have minor learning disabilities. Had they been born into another culture their disabilities would of course impact their lives in many ways, but would not bar them from living independently and pursuing an education and career.  However in Belarus, where attitudes towards disability are only now beginning to slowly shift, and there are no systems of social support for disabled individuals, families with disabled children are given few options other than the institutions. Once again this is a distressing state of affairs, but through the CCP’s tireless support change is not impossible. It is through the CCP’s incredible work that the residents from the craft room have been recognised as individuals capable of learning and producing things of value- not just branded disabled and therefore useless. It may not be the independent existence these people deserve, but it is a step towards recognising disabled people as valuable, which is at least a small, tentative step in the right direction.

These observations may make a trip to Zhuravichi seem harrowing, and it certainly was at times. But to any prospective volunteers who are concerned about embarking on an emotionally exhausting fortnight, please be assured that as tough as it could be, I came back with an aching face from smiling for most of the trip. The residents are hilarious and made me laugh constantly, and the volunteers became my little CCP family- supporting each other through the hard moments and giggling inanely through the rest. You also haven’t experienced fun until you’ve been to a Zhuravichi disco. An exhausting and sweaty experience, but as always the incredible energy and enthusiasm of the residents made it a joy, and even after the hardest day you often found yourself doing the conga to Belarussian pop, having an absolute blast.

We also got to explore the Belarus outside of the institutions on our day off, with a visit to the town of Gomel. A fascinating place with vast, beautifully maintained parks and all sorts of historic buildings and monuments to explore- this trip provided a welcome break halfway through the visit, and left us feeling refreshed and raring to get back to supporting the residents.
Another aspect of my trip which will stay with me forever was the time we spent with the residents who are wheelchair users. Unsurprisingly, being physically disabled in Belarus is not easy hand to be dealt, and those in wheelchairs lead even more limited lives than the other residents. I was particularly moved by meeting one resident, a lovely 26 year old with severe cerebral palsy. Through our translator we learned that this young man is passionate about history and politics, and despite the total lack of education he’s had, reads any papers and history books he can get his hands on. This shook me to the core, as a 26 year old history graduate who has had endless opportunities and support throughout my life. That this young man would have had the option to attend university and explore his interests- just as I was able to do- had he been born in the UK, left me overwhelmed by the injustice of it all.  Once again these residents were treated with genuine compassion and affection by their carers- but staff shortages and Belarussian perceptions of disability meant they rarely took part in the limited activities available at the orphanage. This made it even more wonderful that we were able to run a cookery session with them. The residents made delicious plum crumbles and scones with us and loved every minute of it. This messy wonderful session demonstrated so pertinently that physical disability is not an impervious barrier to taking part in fun, rewarding activities- the excitement and pride on the resident’s faces when they saw what they had made said it all.

 Alongside their work at Zhuravichi, the CCP also supports Vikov- a residential home for older people with learning and physical disabilities. Once again the charity has been instrumental in bringing about monumental changes at this establishment- running disability awareness sessions with staff, employing craft instructors and helping create welcoming communal areas. However as with the orphanage, so much more could be done to enrich the lives of the resident, who are similarly locked into monotonous daily routines without the regular meaningful interactions they deserve. Many of the residents have dementia- a condition which is of course isolating even in the best of circumstances. It was a joy to interact with these people. Alongside lots of games in the home’s beautiful grounds, pampering was the name of the game at Vikov. Some volunteers painted nails, others made bracelets and I gave countless hand massages. Despite the language barrier and conditions like dementia it couldn’t have been clearer that these brief moments of human interaction with each resident meant something to them, and were valuable.

The time I spent at Zhuravichi and Vikov has had a profound impact on me, and I believe the work the CCP and its volunteers do is beyond valuable. I would recommend this experience to anyone with an interest in helping others, who wants to step out of their comfort zone whilst having an incredible amount of fun with wonderful people. Whether you have experience working with people with disabilities or not isn’t important- if you are willing to spend a fortnight smiling, laughing (and disco dancing!) with people who have been dealt a deeply unfair hand in life, you will make an amazing volunteer, and you are in for an incredible experience.

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