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