“To start things off, greetings from Mongu, Zambia, my home for the last four months!
I embarked on my Journey in May 2017 and cannot believe how quickly my time here has passed. Cliched but true! From the training provided by Viatores Christi, I was prepared for the initial challenges that my new role would bring and ready for a difficult ‘settling in’ period — but to be honest I feel I hit the ground running because of all the support I was given before I left.
The Cheshire Home is where I was placed, and I am often asked – What is like? What do they do there?
Believe it or not, these are difficult questions to answer. Unless you experience it for yourself, it is hard to comprehend or fully appreciate the work that takes place in Cheshire Home. When I first arrived one of my Zambian colleagues described it as ‘a special place’, this is a description that continues to ring true in in my mind. I’ve never known anywhere as special, or as important, to so many people as The Cheshire Home.
When summarising all the work in my head, I see that The Cheshire Home offers the community so many things. It is a rehabilitation home for children with disabilities, a special needs education service, an advocacy centre for people with disabilities, an early intervention hub, an outreach service working with people in the community who have disabilities. Cheshire Home’s community boundary stretches across the whole western province of Zambia. Children and families travel for days to reach it to access its services. The scope of service provision is mind boggling. Coming from a social care background in Ireland, I cannot believe what the Presentation Sisters have achieved in their fight to support children with disabilities in Zambia.
There are over seventy children on-site with a wide range of physical and intellectual disabilities. The Early Intervention Programme, which allows young children to access services with their parents, has up to 20 families on site.
A physio therapy programme runs five days per week alongside the education programme, which allows children to access quality education while staying at the Cheshire Home. Unfortunately, the reality in Zambia is that children with disabilities don’t normally get the chance to attend school. Distance, physical and/or intellectual disabilities, poverty and discrimination are all factors that act as barriers to these children getting a proper education.
There is a core team of Children’s support staff at Cheshire Home, who work with the children throughout the day and each night. Part of my role here has been to devise and provide training that meets the needs of the service. My main priority regarding the training is that it must be accessible for staff and meaningful to the work they carry out. By taking a need based approach and working in active partnership with the staff, we have completed a six-week programme on Child Development and Play as well as a Child Protection Workshop. Because of low educational attainment and their own previous experiences of education, it was important that the training supported staff to be active participants in their own learning. Access to translation was also key. From one-to-one meetings with the staff in my first number of weeks in my role, staff informed me that they had been taught as children to be seen and not heard, don’t challenge your teacher, the teacher is always right etc – reminding me of Paulo Freire’s concept of ‘Educational Banking’. I wanted them to experience a new way of learning. My goal was for the staff to build confidence around the topics and begin to challenge me as a facilitator – ask questions, offer different examples, problem solve and to realise that EVERYBODY has something to contribute.
The Presentation Sisters, are constantly striving to up-skill staff and encourage learning and further education. Being able to contribute to this process has meant a great deal to me and I hope that this term’s scheduled training will continue to provide learning opportunities for the staff.
Finally, most of my day revolves around the main stakeholders of the organisation – the children! Each one an individual and special in their own unique way. Although they face many challenges because of their disabilities, Cheshire Home is allowing them to experience childhood and always striving to acknowledge their rights to safety, protection, education and non- discrimination under the UNCRC.
I find it difficult to write from a personal perspective, and I hope I have provided you with some insight into my time here so far. If I had any advice for fellow volunteers? Do not be taken in by a romanticised idea of volunteering. I took on this role and contract with the same level of commitment and dedication as I would have a professional position at home. I can see how roles like mine, filled by professional volunteers are helping to meet the ongoing and demanding needs of projects overseas. The minimum cost of placing a child in residential care in Ireland is over one thousand two hundred per week. The Cheshire Home is running on the generosity of funders and the unwavering commitment of both Sister Cathy and Sister Stella.”