We are pleased to be an Official Charity Partner of UK Charity Week and write a monthly article of all things Share!
My name is Samantha, I am an Occupational Therapist and Trustee for the charity, Share. I want to raise awareness and celebrate the great work that the charity Share, does.
Since 2012, each summer I have volunteered in a Romania children’s centre; known as the Bianca Project.
Every summer, for the past ten years, newly qualified Occupational Therapists have participated in the Bianca Project and volunteered with children with multiple and complex disabilities in a centre in Romania each. Many of the children are not mobile and have additional learning needs. Unfortunately, due to their complex needs, most of the children here are not able to be looked after by their families, and thus, live in a state-run children’s centre. The children receive only limited therapy input; however, we know and have seen how beneficial this is and what they can achieve with patience and support. When the children turn 18, they move to an adult centre with many other residents. It is imperative that the children develop life skills and independence ahead of this big change. The Bianca Project volunteers aim to teach the children new skills and provide an opportunity for learning. These newly qualified therapists are provided with support and mentorship from experienced returning therapists.
On the very first day at the centre, I was 20 and had not yet found my confidence. As I stepped into the first house in the compound, I was met by 8 boys; most of them wheelchair users with multiple sensory impairments. I will always remember the moment one boy held me by the wrist and stared me in the eyes with the biggest grin imaginable. At that moment I hadn’t realised what the project would mean to me, or to the children who benefit from it.
Since 2012, I have returned each summer to work with the children. A typical day begins with a volunteer team meeting, deciding which of the children we will work with today and what our aims are. We then spend the day working with the children, building relationships with the carers and ensuring each child’s day is filled with laughter and smiles.
The volunteers aim to bring toys and supplies which we utilise in our daily therapy. From play-doh, space blankets, jigsaws and face paints; each child’s needs are considered, and activities adapted to the children.
For one child, our focus was to encourage him to eat independently. As Occupational Therapists, we encourage skill development via play. We played a variety of games to help him practice different grips and develop his fine motor skills with the end goal of manipulating a spoon. With this child, we knew he loved colouring and exploratory games in which he would search for objects within a box of beads. Using this connection, over the next 6 weeks we supported his hands and prompting the use of a spoon. By the time he left the centre, he could eat his meals using a spoon and had more independence at mealtimes.
Many of the children have difficulty with verbal communication. In recent years we have begun introducing communication symbols or Augmentative and Alternative Communication. This is very new to the centre and we are currently demonstrating what symbol communication can do for the children, by us using them ourselves known as modelling. One young boy, in particular, has enjoyed learning to communicate with symbols and on a summer trip to the park, put his finger to his lip to indicate ‘shhh’, pointed to the symbol for ‘funny’ and then jumped on one of the volunteers who was pretending to sleep!
We strive to give all the children the opportunity to experience new things, such as going to the park, for a swim at the pool or sensory activities. For some of the older children we try and provide the opportunity to develop life skills within the community. The children have often never handled money, ordered their own food or accessed public transport.
In October 2019 we were fortunate to partner with another charity, Love Light Romania. Together we have renovated a house for three young adults from the children’s centre to live in. This is lovingly known Jim’s House, in memory of a cherished supporter of the charity who sadly passed away in 2017. We had known and worked with these three young people for the past ten years and had grown fond of them. I believe that they have been able to make this move because of the time we have spent with them. It has meant that as they turned 18, the three of them have not been forced to move to an adult centre. Their new home offers them an independent lifestyle in sheltered accommodation with full-time care staff. The young adults have learnt many life skills, including helping with shopping, cleaning and the daily care of the house. Recent updates from the care team have shown the young adults make a great traditional Romanian apple pie. For these three, Jim’s House and the work that Share and Love Light Romania do is life-changing. One of the young adults, Bianca told us ‘I like that I get to cook, clean, sew, draw and have a family life. This is the best thing that has ever happened to me.’
We are extremely saddened that we have not been able to visit the centre this year. However, we are continuing our fundraising efforts to ensure that the Bianca Project can continue and the three young adults can live at Jim’s House forever. Some of our volunteers climbed Mount Snowden at sunset on a weekend this month to raise vital funds for their care. We are so proud of our volunteers.
LAST month, we wrote an article in regards to our projects, based in Romania. The Bianca Project and Jim’s House are projects within our charity SHARE, that are truly close to our hearts. As a trustee, volunteer and supervisor, I would like to set out our visions and hope for the future also.
I have been involved with SHARE since 2013, aged 20 and very naïve to the world. I was shy and lacked confidence in every aspect. The Bianca Project, not only helped my confidence personally but also professionally as an occupational therapist. I had no idea that this would be the basis for my career. I left a piece of my heart in Sibiu in 2013, and each time I go back I leave more and more there. Having been to Romania for our project 9 times, I can truly say that this life-changing experience, achieves more and more each year. Even though we have not been able to visit in 2020, it does not mean that whilst we have been in the UK we have not planned for the future and completed fundraising for both the Bianca Project and Jim’s House.
The Bianca Project achieves more and more each year, and our biggest achievements happened in 2019. With the continuity of regular supervisors building rapport, we built the trust to be able to take some of the children out of the children’s centre, beyond where many of them have previously been. We have achieved taking some of the children to Salt Lakes, indoor swimming pools and to the local park. Whilst this does not sound like a great achievement in the UK, this was many of the children’s first time beyond the gates of the centre. There is nothing like the smile of a child after trying their first mouthful of ice cream!
In October’s article, we explained about Jim’s House. How this has become a home for life for 3 extraordinary young people. Whilst spending a significant amount of their life in a children’s centre, we have partnered with Love Light Romania to give these three young people a home for life outside of an institution. We have been informed that during the pandemic, they have each come on leaps and bounds. This has shown just how fiercely independent they are, mainly just needing assistance for cooking and food preparation. This would not have happened without the support from Share and Love Light Romania. We could not be any prouder of them, they are now regularly accessing the community, baking cakes and doing their own housework and cleaning. To be part of this as a trustee and volunteer has been an incredible part of this, as we each know that this would not have happened without the decisions that we collectively made.
We hope that Jim’s house will continue for many more years, for this to be a home for life for the three young people that it supports. This will take lots of fundraising efforts which we regularly discuss as trustees. We want the three young people to be able to access the community more and more, and we would like the support workers that Share fund to be able to work with the young people to access public transport as independently as possible. We would also like – when the pandemic allows, for the volunteers to be able to take them away for a few nights to give them more opportunities. Love Light Romania have another project in Jacodu working with a Roma Gypsy Community, and this would be a fantastic opportunity for our three young people to experience, as they have polytunnels so can engage in lots of gardening activities, and opportunities to meet new people.
The future for the SHARE Bianca Project is hoped that we will continue to be allowed to take the children to experience outside of the children’s centre. We want to be able to have these experiences for the children more often and we want to be able to give some of the younger children more sensory experiences. We want to be able to help them regulate their own sensory needs eventually which means helping them experience this as much as possible. We have hope for the future to be so bright for both the children in Speranta and the young adults in Jim’s House. We have hope for the future that we can help educate the children’s carers further on their individual health conditions and the resulting physical and emotional needs and how to support the children with these. We have so much hope that we can continue to fundraise for these projects to make them have the outcomes the children and young people fully deserve.
In the Summer of 2019, four newly qualified Speech and Language Therapists and one Occupational Therapist volunteered to go to work in a centre for Children with Complex Needs in Sibiu, Romania.
Many of the children in the Centre had been abandoned at birth during the time when abandonment in Romania was commonplace or when either their parents or foster carers could no longer care for them at home. In recent years more babies survive a difficult or premature birth and many of these babies end up in the centre as Romania still does not have the level of support needed to keep children at home.
Newly qualified therapists have been volunteering to go to Romania with SHARE since 2010 and when they return home, they write a reflection about their time there.
Here are extracts from two of them.
Hamida – Occupational Therapist:
As soon as we met the children, they were incredibly open to us and seemed happy to see us, even though we had never met. I felt that this was a credit to the hard work Share has been doing over the years as the children greeted us with excitement – expecting good things. There were several children who were able to successfully grab my attention straight away and show me what they wanted. Not being able to speak Romanian was not an issue here. For the children who were independent in their movements, the challenge was explaining that as much as I would love to spend all day jumping on the trampoline, scootering, hammering, or climbing through windows, there is only one of me and I need to spend equal amounts of time with different children! The more I made this a point, the more the children were accepting of the matter and were ‘okay’ sharing me
Interacting with the children really teaches a lesson in gratefulness. No matter the child’s disability, it was obvious to see how they valued the attention that was given to them. Be that holding their hand, pushing them on the swing, sitting with them or taking them to the park, they were always so happy and cheerful – and this was contagious. I could not stop grinning either. This lack of being serious and being childlike was very refreshing as it allowed for a lot of creativity. Because of this, I was able to use a lot of energy to do what the children wanted. I was able to give them the opportunity to learn skills in the short time we had with them.
The importance of physical contact on the development of a child was also highlighted to me. I was not aware of just how important physical contact is until I met the children and did a little reading around the topic myself. This helped me to understand that even for grown adults, physical touch is something which is important for mental wellbeing. I think along the lines of a hug a day by someone you love, removes stresses. For a lot of the children, the only physical contact they receive is when they are being fed or clothed. For the most part, they are left in rockers, wheelchairs or on bean bags. Children who should be moving and crawling are not being encouraged to do this. So, whatever opportunity was available I made it my purpose to allow those children to explore beyond their wheelchair etc.
I had a ‘banger’ of a summer with the children, experiencing so much and gaining very many skills.
Sakina – Speech and Language Therapist:
This year I was given the most incredible opportunity to venture out to Romania for four weeks and work in Speranţa; a centre for children with disabilities. As a newly qualifying Speech and Language Therapist, I travelled and worked with other SLTs and Occupational Therapists. During the four weeks, we worked on several different skills with the children. For example, initiation, copying and turn-taking through play therapy, always making sure to accompany this with lots of love, cuddles, and tickles! We were also very lucky as we were given permission to take the less disabled children out of the centre almost every day and so we took full advantage of this; taking them on outings to the carnival, the park, restaurants, the salt lakes and the swimming pool.
As volunteers, we all stayed in a hostel in central Sibiu, which was close enough to walk to Speranţa and made it very convenient to get food and groceries locally. Whilst I was aware that as new volunteers, we would be sharing a room together, to my surprise; our supervisors were also sharing the room with us. This in fact made it a lot easier for us to settle, build trust and good relationships with them, and understand the environment we were working in better.
As part of our experience, we also got the opportunity to visit Little John’s House; a home for several disabled children and young adults. Little John’s House runs a summer camp for the children from Speranţa and other local children. During my first visit, I had a WHALE of a time because not only did I get to embrace my inner child by raiding the dress-up closet and transforming into a ‘fairy princess bat-witch’, but I also waded down a stream in my shoes, which became completely soaked!
Personally, working in Speranţa brought about so much happiness, joy and contentment; in fact, I would go as far as calling it therapeutic because seeing the children almost every day, building bonds with them, getting to know their lovely personalities, watching them develop daily, and giving and receiving love was so rewarding. I do recall, however, that in the beginning I was worried that I may not be doing my job right as I did not think I was conducting any therapy. After a conversation with my supervisors, however, I realised that it really was about play therapy and that without even realising it, the work I had done so far had made some impact on the children.
I loved to see that one of the supervisors had brought out a communication book for one of the children, who was SO motivated to communicate and used his book brilliantly.
We were lucky with the supervisors we had this year and I think this made a massive impact on our experience. The fact that we had two supervisors at the beginning (Sammi and Sarah) for the first 2 weeks, meant that we became familiar with our surroundings and settled in quickly. I loved that between us and all our supervisors, there was never a concept of hierarchy or ‘us and them.’ They were there for guidance when we were working with the children, but at the same time, they were there as friends. They were all kind, thoughtful and always approachable for whenever we had any issue, and they made the effort to get to know us as individuals.
Overall, I think that my experience in Romania taught me to be more self-sufficient and made more of an adult out of me. I also realised how much I love the children that I met, each with their own characters and traits, their lovely smiles, and beautiful personalities. I always knew children had a powerful impact on an individual, but until I met the children in Speranta, I never understood how much.