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2017 Grateful 33

Appalled. Beset. Confused. Dismayed. I ran through virtually the whole reaction alphabet earlier this week when I received a note from a journalist friend telling me about a press release that had crossed their desk. It concerned a damaging report on a charity near and dear to my heart, one that I’d been fundraising for, for years. I clicked the link and read with mounting horror. Could it be true?

A number of years ago, when Gift of the Gab returned for second run after a year-long hiatus, I decided that any monies raised should go to a good cause. Working with the IHBC, we decided to support a state orphanage in Göd, the Topház Speciális Otthon. 

It was back in 2011 that I first met Norbert and was moved beyond tears to raise money to make his life just a little better. I wrote about it.

Yesterday, I met Norbert. Norbert is in his mid-thirties and spends his day in the corner of a cot in a room at the Topház Speciális Otthon in Göd, about a half-hour drive from Budapest. His world is the room he shares with Tony and Dani. Although I had a hard time believing it, Norbert is one of the luckier residents: he has not been forgotten.

We raised enough money to get him and some of the others proper beds. The next year it was new doors. Then it was a new sound system so that those residents confined to their rooms could have music and see the events going on in the main hall, like the Christmas parties. We helped as often as we could and as much as we could, never donating money, but buying things they needed and volunteering time to paint, to visit, to play. It’s been a few years since I’ve been there but the volunteer visits have continued with those volunteering getting far more from the experience than they give. I’ve never forgotten the lads, Norbert and Kristof, and the others.

And then the report. Straightjackets and Seclusion.

MDAC is today calling for the immediate closure of state-run institutions for people with disabilities in Hungary after an investigation of one large scale institution discovered children and adults who had been tortured and abused, including being tied to beds and restrained with makeshift straitjackets.

My orphanage. Our orphanage. The full report makes damning reading. It’s horrendous. As I read, I felt let down, disappointed, angry. I felt as if I had in some way been complicit in it all. I began to feel guilty. I’d been involved. I’d asked people to support this cause. And they’d responded. They’d given of their time and their money to help. I’d planted a tree in the grounds in memory of my best mate who’d died the day before a planned visit to the orphanage. I felt betrayed.

How typical though, how selfish, how human to pivot the whole situation so that it revolved around me. I had to stop, think, take stock. And calm down.

And in the while it took me to get to the stage that I could think straight, I hear the director has been replaced and investigations are underway. And I have come to terms with the part I played.

I volunteered, raised money, helped in my small way to make the lives of some of these people just a little better than that might otherwise have been. And I made a difference. No matter what is said or what comes of all of this, I made a difference. Everyone who contributed made a difference.

And even knowing what I now know about what has allegedly happened there, I’d do it all again. Because the Norberts and the Kristofs of this world need help. They’re stuck in what has proven to be a flawed system. They are at the mercy of the state and its intermediaries, its representatives. The answer is not to withdraw support or distance myself. Continuing to help is not a tacit approval of the way it’s being run. I re-read the translation of a piece that appeared in Index.hu back in 2014 and wondered how three years could have made such a difference.

And if, as MDAC wants, the orphanage is closed, it will take time for everyone to be rehoused. But in the interim, Norbert and Kristof, and the rest of the residents still matter. Helping them still matters.

This week, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to contribute, to help, to volunteer at Göd, along with so many others. I’m grateful for the lessons I learned from the lads. And I’m grateful to have made a difference, however small.

Non nobis solum nati sumus

 

 

Grateful 4

Christmas is associated with giving – and unfortunately much of what’s given is unwanted, not needed, and a huge waste of time, effort, and money. Yet the one gift that is most sought after, is also the most difficult to find. Time. Everyone seems to want it and no one seems to have any. It’s all rush, rush, rush, wrap, wrap, wrap. Presents to buy, parties to go to, gifts to give. The mania is well and truly upon us. But we forget, perhaps, that the most meaningful gifts we can give are love, compassion, and  … a hug.

Down at the Topház Speciális Otthon in Göd (a state orphanage) today with a gang of IHBC’s Give a Little campaigners, both time and hugs were in demand. We descended on the place at 10am and then set about entertaining and being entertained. The Lions Club had donated Santa Bags for all the residents and while they danced and sang and recited, we had a tune or two of our own to share.

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It’s impossible to describe what it feels like to have so many hands reaching out to touch you. It’s humbling to know that by simply shaking a hand, or giving a hug, or just letting someone touch your hair, you can make a big difference to their day. The staff are wonderfully caring, supportive, and loving. And to see this in their interaction with the residents is heart-warming. They seem to have endless patience. It takes a very special type of person to be able to do this sort of work, day in, day out. For those like Kristóf, or Norbert, who have visitors maybe once a year, having people like us visit literally makes their day.

In an era when social media is doing its bit to distance us from each other physically and the main experience we have of being tactile is a frighteningly intimate relationship with a smart phone or an iPad, visiting Göd is a sobering reminder of what matters.  As we move closer and closer to Christmas, when thoughts turn to gift-buying and partying, we could do worse than remember that the best gifts we can give are our time and our compassion. We might not be able to wrap a hug, but it’s one gift no one will want to exchange.

As one mad week finishes and another hovers on the horizon, I am grateful for my involvement with the Give a Little campaign, and the orphanage. I certainly get far more than I give.

PS A reminder of what novelist, journalist, and humorist Oren Arnold (1900–1980) had on his suggested gift list:

To your enemy, forgiveness.
To an opponent, tolerance.
To a friend, your heart.
To a customer, service.
To all, charity.
To every child, a good example.
To yourself, respect.

Happy shopping:-)

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

Grateful 15

A woman who is willing to be herself and pursue her own potential runs not so much the risk of loneliness, as the challenge of exposure to more interesting men – and people in general. Well, Lorraine Hansberry (African American playwright and author of political speeches, letters, and essays) may only have lived to the ripe young age of 35, but her words certainly resonated with me this week.

It’s Gift of the Gab time again and in the midst of readying the stage for the next seven months, SzSz, BA, and yours truly made a quick trip to the orphanage in Göd where the oldest resident is about 35 and most are severely handicapped. Our mission: to drop off  a pair of new wheelbarrows and some donations (TV, DVD, clothes) and take measurements to replace some interior doors. Regular readers and Gab Fans will remember that this fundraising event all started when I met Norbert in July last year. To say that he made an impression would be putting it mildly. This week, I met Kristof.

Kristof is deaf and he doesn’t talk. He is of indeterminate age – 14, 20, 24, 28, 32 – with a tight buzz cut. He is extremely effeminate and easily mistaken for a girl – not that it matters much to him as his world is the orphanage and interactions with strangers like me are few and far between. We were in his ward, checking out the doors that need replacing (and, thanks to the money raised from the GOTG 2012, they can be). Having come without my measuring tape (no accident), I was standing around, not doing much of anything. A few of the lads, not suffering from the same social inhibitions that you or I might consider normal, came up to me and introduced themselves. One hugged me, one kissed my arm, one ran his hands through my hair. Kristof came over and shook my hand. For the next half hour, as the tape measurers did their work, me and Kristof had a long chat – in mime.

He described in minute detail various dresses that he’d designed. His creations had long sleeves, short sleeves, and no sleeves. They were thigh-length, knee-length, calf-length, and full length. They were fitted at the waist, under the bust, or at the hips. They had scooped necks, high necks, and v-necks. They were off the shoulder, halterneck, and strapless. No detail was too small to be omitted. Each one had its own accessories: rings, gloves, belts, earrings, and necklaces. One even had a  Spanish comb holding a long veil in place. And each of them was for a special occasion – dancing, dining, weddings, walking, shopping. Once he was sure I could ‘see’ the dress, he’d get in character and play the bride, the socialite, the shopper. He’d hug me. Kiss me. Or shake my hand, depending on who was wearing his dress. He had me in stitches. Completely amazed at how he could communicate in such detail without one single, solitary  word, I stood in awe of him. Once he’d run through his repertoire, he linked his arm in mine and we took a short stroll down the corridor. He allowed me to say hello to his mates, to shake some hands, but if anyone got too close, they got a shove. I found out later that Kristof’s mood could turn on pin – and a shove was mild.

When our business was done, measurements taken, and even more needs identified, it was time to leave. Krisof kissed me four times – twice on each cheek. He held both my hands, looked up at me, and smiled. As we left the ward, the double doors were locked behind us, locking me out of his world. He looked out through the glass panel and blew me a kiss. And I cried a little inside.

As this week draws to a close, I think again of Hansberry’s words. In being myself and in pursuing my potential, I am lonely sometimes. But the life that has chosen me  exposes me to many interesting people – men like Norbert and Kristof whose lives are so far removed from mine it’s a miracle that our paths have crossed. And yet they have taught me so much. People like the Gift of the Gab speakers who are willing to take to the stage to raise some money for this worthwhile cause. My friends and supporters, who give of their time to sort venues, take tickets, update websites, take photos, and sponsor room rental, trophies and prizes – all those who make sure that the show goes on. And the many people who will come along on Wednesday 26th September to the Cotton Club, and leave 1000 ft at the door (€3.50 / $5) so that in the coming year, we can do even more to make the orphanage a better place to be. For this, I am truly grateful.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

 

Getting far more than I give

I’d sooner wash windows than paint walls and I’d sooner clean floors than do anything in the garden. But when it’s not my wall or my garden … that’s a different story. While I’m no stranger to volunteering, I tend to opt for things I can do on my own as I’m not big into group activities generally (am quite anti-social really, when I think about it). But there’s something quite unique about volunteering with the IHBC‘s Give a Little campaign.

This was our second trip to the Topház Speciális Otthon in Göd (a state orphanage), the first having been voted a roaring success back in July. I’d expected pretty much the same crowd, yet I found that I only knew a handful of those who turned up at Nyugati to cadge a lift down. The majority were students from Semmelweiss University – future vets, doctors, and dentists – all giving freely of their time to paint one of the wards and clean up the grounds.

Given that it was such a gorgeous sunny day, I  opted for the garden duty. We raked leaves, trimmed hedges, dug weeds, planted shrubs, played air guitars on shovels, horsed around on spades, got to use a hedge clippers, rejoiced in our welts and callouses, and generally had a blast. Who would ever have thought that hard work could be so much fun.

I have a theory. I can’t speak for anyone else, but this is how I see it. Volunteering for these work crews gives me something I don’t get from my normal, everyday life. I get to go in, work like mad (well, I have a blister or too!), accomplish something, have some fun, and then get to stand back and see the fruits of my labour – all in a matter of hours. Multiply that feeling by the 40 or so people there today and you get a lot of work done and a lot of satisfaction from doing it. That sense of achievement, that reward of almost immediate gratification, are priceless.

Those who live in the orphanage year round don’t have it quite as good. For them, there is no going home or going back to a normal life as I know it. But the staff really seem to care and the lads who are ambulatory laugh a lot. For many, it’s a blessing that they don’t fully realise that they’ve been given up by families who, often through no fault of their own, simply couldn’t cope with their disability.  For me, as a volunteer, it’s a blessing to be able to do something to help. And not for the first time, I’m left wondering who really wins from these days out. I have sneaking suspicion that I get far more than I give.

If you want to get involved, sign up to the IHBC facebook page or website or come support the  Gift of the Gab, the proceeds of which are going towards buying a bed for Norbert.

Give a little

Yesterday, I met Norbert. Norbert is in his mid-thirties and spends his day in the corner of a cot in a room at the Topház Speciális Otthon in Göd, about a half-hour drive from Budapest. His world is the room he shares with Tony and Dani. Although I had a hard time believing it, Norbert is one of the luckier residents: he has not been forgotten.

A few months ago, when the charity arm of the IHBC launched its Give a Little campaign, its aim was to get a bunch of volunteers together to spend a day somewhere, doing some much-needed work. Volunteerism is very much part of the Irish psyche of expectation. Evidence of community involvement and volunteer activity has been a key requirement on Irish CVs for decades. It’s very much part of our culture. Many ex-pats in Hungary find it difficult to get involved, to do something more concrete than forking over a few forints. So when Declan Hannigan, Chair of the Give a Little campaign, organised a day at the centre in Göd, he wasn’t short of volunteers.

On Saturday morning, at 8.30 am, 33 adults and five children began a day that would not be quickly forgotten. Our task: to paint one of the residential houses and to do some gardening. Throughout the morning as we set about organising ourselves to do what had to be done, many of us spoke of how it wasn’t nearly as bad as we’d been expecting.

Mention ‘orphanage’ and immediately we flash back to TV images of old communist blocks in Romania and Bulgaria with patients living in horrendous conditions, supervised with military precision, made all the more stark for its complete lack of feeling. The bungalow we worked on was light and airy. It was a little disturbing to see the metal beds, each with a simple foam mattress, cotton cover, and a blanket,  bolted to the floor. Wardrobes bore the names of the room’s occupants and few toys were visible. The common area was a combination of kitchen and living room, decorated with bright murals; the padlock on the fridge looked a little out of place, but as we would learn, life here works to a different set of rules and expectations. Overall, though, the impression was good. The collective sigh of relief was almost audible – this wasn’t nearly as harrowing as we had expected.Outside in the grounds, more volunteers cut grass and trimmed hedges. The football pitch is now usable again and the front garden no longer looks like an unruly meadow. It was hard work. It was hot work. But it was rewarding work. Most of us, in our 9-5 workdays, rarely get the same level of satisfaction as we got yesterday from seeing a job well done. We started, we worked, we finished – we made a difference. No amount of money could buy that sense of accomplishment. For me, scraping the glue from the wardrobe doors and making those doors look new again was the most satisfying work I’ve done in ages.  As the international team of Irish, English, Scottish, Welsh, Hungarian,  American, and Russian  worked together, united in a common cause, we were fed by Jack Doyle’s, watered by Becketts, supplied with brushes from Kőházy Festékáruházak and paint from PoliFarbe.Although it’s a gated community, residents who can wander, wander freely. One chap had a fascination with smelling hair. Another simply wanted to name all the types of car parked out front. Daniel, the caretaker, had prepared us. We were the strangers; we were the ones out of place. So it was only to be expected that residents would be curious. Seeing such mental and physical disability up close and personal was harrowing. Those who wanted to, were taken in small groups to visit some of the wards.

There are 220 residents from all over Hungary housed in Göd aged 2 to 45. They’re looked after by 140 staff, most of whom work 12-hour shifts, day on, day off. There are four main wings, long dark corridors lined with airy rooms decorated in bright colours.  Rooms are decordated annually because the residents are not bound by societal rules of what you can and cannot do to a wall. Some pieces of plaster had been pulled away, kicked in, scribbled on. Toys hung from the ceiling so that residents couldn’t destroy them. Some don’t know their own strength. Televisions broadcast in every room and for many, that’s their view of the outside world.

The first ward we visited had 45 residents, all of whom could move about, walking or in their wheelchairs.  It’s staffed by four – a ratio of  less than one carer for every ten residents. Not enough on so many levels. Anita, just shy of 18,  wanted to shake hands and hug. I held her hand and found myself drawn into a tight hug. It was all I could do to hold it together. Anita is one of those who have been forgotten, left to the care of the state. She has never had a visitor. Her need, on whatever level, for physical contact was palpable. Alls sorts of emotions ran through me as we made our way up the ward. These residents all looked much younger than their years and I wondered briefly how much of that had to do with them not living in the ‘real world’ with all the stress and anxiety that this encompasses. They sat around, some on sofas, some in wheelchairs, some on the floor. Some were listless; others watched TV or each other. Some laughed, some made noises that might well have been laughter. Some did nothing at all, their bodies wasted, muscles atrophied, faces disfigured, but eyes bright and watchful showing that someone, a whole person, was home. Most were curious to know who we were. For them, we were a change in their routine. Something new. Something different. Later, in the Caledonia, over a pint or three, we would discuss whether that was what they needed – as well as painting or cutting grass, what if we spent time in the wards, just sitting, talking, and playing. What if we just visited?

In the next ward, we met cot after cot with young children, five or six to a room, each lying quietly, limbs contorted. One child’s  long, wasted legs conjured up images of famine-ridden Africa. Watchful eyes told us that they knew what was going on but just couldn’t communicate. One 4-year-old with encephalitis was being bottle fed. She has never had a visitor. Of the 40 residents in this ward, only 4 have regular visitors and even that might be an annual visit at Christmas. Ubiquitous Disney characters line the walls of the corridor. Soft toys look down on the kids from a height. The flickering TV screens provide noise and distraction. I hung back as the others went to say hi and make friends. All appeared visibly shaken. I was barely holding it together. Again I asked if we were intruding and again I was assured that this break in routine for the staff and for the residents was most welcome.

And then I saw Norbert. Norbert is a grown man in the bed of a child. Kneeling in corner of his cot, he looked over the bars out onto his world. I stared. I couldn’t help it.  He looked at me quizzically. The look he gave me wasn’t accusatory or defiant. It was neither helpless nor hopeful. I wanted to go over to him, to hold his hand, to talk to him. But I couldn’t. All my world experience garnered from years of education, work, travel, and relationships deserted me.  I didn’t know what to do. I swear he could feel it. His world is the room he shares with Tony and Dani. He probably has a better understanding of his life than I have of mine. His look said it all – don’t be sad: don’t pity me, but don’t forget me.

There are homes like this all over the world. The waiting lists are long. The disabilities are severe. The staff undervalued. While I might wonder how parents could give up their children and forget about them, I cannot judge. I don’t know their circumstances. I don’t know if I could cope, were I in their shoes. The staff who work at Topház Speciális Otthon are saints. They care. The residents seem happy. It’s a commmunity. Daniel, the caretaker, had a word for all he met on our travels. It’s underststaffed, underfunded, and over subscribed. Their wish list: CD players, TVs, adult beds, a hoist to lift the adults into their baths, material for the romper suits that need to be specially made, bed linens, mattresses, blankets, diapers… more money, more staff, more equipment.

I doubt that any one of us there yesterday came away unchanged. This was no TV commercial or broadcast documentary. This was real. Norbert is real. No matter how small or insignificant our contribution in the grand scheme of things, it felt damn good to make a difference. For those of you Irish and old enough to remember the Gorta ads, in the words of the inimitable Bunny Carr: Give a little. It would help a lot.