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Elephants and ice-cream

I’ve noticed that the meaner the world gets, the nicer I want to be. The crazier world politics becomes, the more simplicity I crave. And as we teeter on the brink of insanity, I’m spending more and more time trying not to lose sight of what really matters.

Ever wonder where your money goes when you donate to a charity, or sponsor someone to run a 10k, or buy a raffle ticket? All too often we never see the effect. We have vague notions, perhaps, of the difference our help may have made. Then again, perhaps we don’t care. Perhaps the giving is something we do automatically without wondering what next. Perhaps in our own little universe it’s not about ego or power or public recognition. Perhaps we don’t care about the applause or the back slaps or the congratulatory adulation. Perhaps we simply give to share and share to give.

Yet there’s a whole debate to be had about where to give, to whom to give, and why to give. I know I’ve had more than few conversations about it. I have an innate distrust of big charities and the money they spend on plush headquarters and fancy cars for their CEOs – but as was pointed out to me recently, if they want to attract big money, they need to have a big presence. On an intellectual level, I can see the validity of this. On an emotional level, I still have problems.

I prefer to support people I know involved in projects that are making a difference. Okay, so maybe these projects won’t bring about world peace, or make any sort of difference on a grand scale, but what they have in common is that they make a difference to someone.

My friend Zsuzsa B has adopted the village of Zabar in Eastern Hungary. At Christmas, I had a blast shopping for a 5-year-old girl, making her wish list a reality. Others did likewise and the kids in the village experienced the magic of discovering that wishes can come true. But it didn’t stop there.

These kids had never been to the theatre or to the zoo or eaten in a restaurant. Until recently, their universe was limited to their village and nearby towns. The capital, Budapest, the seat of their parliament, the home of their government, was some place they’d heard about but never seen. For them to have some hope of a better tomorrow, they need to see what’s out there, to broaden their horizons. And for this to happen, they need help.

A bus was hired. Arrangements were made. And 45 children from this remote part of the country embarked on a trip of a lifetime that included pantomime, elephants, and ice-cream. What an eye-opener it was for them. For those who helped make it happen, little else is needed by way of validation that to see the smiles on their faces. This video captures it all.

It is small initiatives like this one that make such a huge difference in the lives of these kids. And in these troubled times, we need to remind ourselves of what’s important and not lose sight of the necessity of doing our bit to make our world a better place.

Speaking for charity

‘How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world.’ When Shakespeare first penned those lines in the Merchant of Venice, he had something. Centuries later, the sentiment still holds true. Good deeds restore our faith in human nature. They are the icing on the cake. The froth on a beer. The latte art on an espresso. And ranking high up on the list of good deeds is volunteering. Those who can, do; those who can do more, volunteer.

I discovered recently that Hungary has a National Volunteer Centre (ÖKA) and a Volunteer Centre Network. I had the good fortune to meet with Executive Director, András F. Tóth, and to learn about the work being done to create a pro bono culture within Hungarian business society. Corporate volunteer strategies are on their way to becoming very much part of doing business in Hungary. Good news.

I grew up in a society were volunteerism was part of the norm. If you didn’t have it on your CV, you wouldn’t get a job. Everyone was involved in some voluntary capacity in one of the myriad organisations set up for the betterment of society. It was just something you did almost without thought.

No night out was complete without someone launching into the litany: ‘I’m shaving my head or growing a mustache or dancing for 24 hours [insert as appropriate] in aid of X charity – will you sponsor me?’ And if it wasn’t sponsorship lines, it was raffle tickets, or charity concerts, or cake sales. People dug deep into their pockets and supported the cause.

GOTGfinalIn Budapest, since 2010, the Gift of the Gab has been providing an opportunity for people to both volunteer and contribute. From September every year, each month (skipping December) five speakers would give a five-minute prepared speech on a topic of their choice. Scored by a panel of randomly selected judges, topics ran the gamut from answering the age-old – What’s the difference between a duck? – to the virtues of arranged marriages. In the second half, speakers had to choose a topic suggested by the audience. These ranged from the bizarre – why is bird poop black-and-white – to the more banal – paving stones or peas or curtains. The winner from each of the five qualifying rounds went forward to the final in March.

Next week, on Thursday, 12th March, at New Orleans on District VI’s Lovag utca, the 2015 final will determine the winner of this, the last in the series. Five hopefuls, having made it through the qualifiers, will take to the stage as 200 or so ticketed attendees do their bit to support the Irish Hungarian Business Circle’s Give a Little charity campaign. It promises to be a great night.

Over the course of the five seasons, more than 110 speakers have taken part and given their time to raise funds for Topház Speciális Otthon in Göd. Thousands more have donated at the door and come out to support them. The volunteer judges, photographers, sponsors, and helpers, have worked hard to make it all happen on the night. And together, their work has benefited some two hundred or more clients at the orphanage, while the generous fans and supporters have been entertained.

It’s been great to see how it has all evolved and I look forward to the big final in September that will pit the five title-holders against each other to determine who in Budapest has the Gift of the Gab. In the meantime, let me borrow again from Shakespeare: I can no other answer make, but, thanks, and thanks. 

First published in the Budapest Times 6 March 2015

2015 Grateful 44

Last count, I’d reinvented myself eight times. Eight times, I’ve started over, begun a new life, moved to a new city or country where no one knew me for much longer than I’d been there. I could be whomever  or whatever I chose to be.

I didn’t invent a past that I couldn’t legitimately lay claim to. I didn’t invent stories of past achievements or gloss over ones of pain and loss. I didn’t change my principles and beliefs. I simply made a conscious choice of what I would share and with whom and perhaps more importantly, how I would live my life.

Most of the time, this was quite freeing. To be able to wipe the slate clean and start anew, learning from past mistakes, that’s a gift to be treasured. Eight times, I resolved to do things differently:  to be more selective about the company I kept, to be more deliberate in the work I chose to do, to be more conscious about how I lived my life. I wasn’t always successful, but I tried.

But some times, it was quite limiting. Those days when I was so fed up with explaining myself that I longed for someone who could identify with the litany of neuroses that come with being Irish. I craved an ear that would listen to my woes and then fix it all with a sympathetic shrug and a call for another pint.  I wanted to be able to sit in company and say nothing and still have everything understood.

There have been times during these eight reinventions when I’ve lost sight of what I wanted to be. Times when I was so caught up in day-to-day living that any grander plan I might have had took a back seat.  And then there were times when life stood still and the realisation that no one within driving distance knew me, really knew me, suffused me in the grey light of loneliness.

There’s something comforting about being with old friends, people who have known me for years, and years, and years. The easy way that conversation flows across the table, evoking memories of times past, and even bringing to light things that had never before been part of the common lore. Sitting around a table in the local, focusing on those present and not on incoming texts or who is coming through the door. We weren’t expecting anyone. We were all there. And then after last call, the suggestion to head into town to Bruxelles taken up by three of us in whom the weakness was very strong. Unplanned. Spontaneous. Living the moment.

20150227_022039_resized20150227_022006_resizedBruxelles has a few things going for it, other than the fact that it opens late. It’s age appropriate. The music is recognisable. And it doesn’t matter where you dance. Or with whom. A cracking night on the tiles in Dublin and one that didn’t take a lot of recovering from.

Then down home to see the inimitable SF, a classmate from the Class of ’83, trip the light fantastic in a Strictly Come Dancing fundraiser. Eighteen couples took to the stage, having been coached by professional dancers. They’d been practicing for weeks, a practice that showed in some more than others. But the courage to get up there, don the glad rags, and strut their stuff in front of 600 or so friends and neighbours and colleagues. Amazing.

If I had to pick one national characteristic that makes me proud to be Irish, it’s the sense of community volunteerism. From local GAA clubs to Parent/Teacher associations to Tidy Towns committees, unpaid volunteers hold up their hands and step forward. Others agree to put their reputations on the line and take to the stage to raise money for some worthy cause. And the crowds come out, en masse, to support them. Rumours of €50 000 being made from tickets sales, raffle tickets, and sponsorship appear to be well founded. And that’s for one night (albeit the culmination of weeks of work on the part of so many). Remarkable.

Up until a couple of years ago, I’d lost touch with the class but did those silent 30 years matter? Not a whit. And it comes back to that shared background, those shared experiences, the shared memories. And while we might have taken different paths and chosen different lives, we all started from the same village school and that starting point is a fixture that is one of the many North Stars that guide my life.

As decisions are made and new paths unfold, I’m grateful for the structure and the security that old friends provide. For their advice and their wisdom, and for the learning their experiences provide.

PS C’mon the boys in green!!!

 

 

 

 

 

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.