Sunday, June 03, 2007

St. Julie Centre - Week 18

The Volunteer Staff and I at the St. Julie Centre

My role as the Volunteer Supervisor seems to get more familiar everyday. Three volunteers from last year, that took temporary leave, are set to rejoined the group and I will soon have a staff of twelve. Most of my staff are members of a local Christian volunteer group called Huruma. Huruma means "sympathy" in Swahili. I had my second volunteer meeting last week and even felt comfortable addressing them without having a translator present. I’m starting to think that my previous lack of experience in being a supervisor has turned out to help me in this role. It’s strange how the exact opposite of both our fears has actually happened. Before they met me, the volunteer staff, which is nearly all female, was afraid that, as a man, I would be over-bearing not be sensitive to their needs. While I, when I found out I’d be their supervisor, thought that the staff would see that I had no experience in this kind of position and would not take me seriously. But, I am happy to say that I have an excellent relationship with my staff and we are grateful to have each other. Things are well and as they should be.

Jairus uses the parallel bars to help him walk

Play therapy has been challenging, but is also going well. It has taken me some time to realize that many of the children who have severe disabilities are going to take a considerable amount of time to show any sign of improvement. Some of the children have been coming to the St. Julie Centre for years and are only presently showing some progress. Even more so, sadly, there are some cases where the children are not expected to improve at all. These children are brought to the Centre only in order to keep them in their present state and not allow them to get any worst. Before I came to terms with this fact I had a very difficult time with play therapy. In my mind, it was as if I had made it my own responsibility to make sure that each child would recover by the time my volunteer service was over. With this mind set, my first few weeks play therapy seemed like an incredibly daunting task.

Ruth is learning to write letters and numbers

After many weeks of therapy most of the children did not show any signs of improvement. Those that couldn’t stand or walk, still couldn’t. Those couldn’t talk, still couldn’t. Those that couldn’t concentrate on a single activity for more than a few seconds, still couldn’t. This is when I began to ask myself, “Am I really helping these children.?” It seemed as if, we at the Centre, were merely buying time while clinging to the false hope that a child with a severe disability might live a “normal” life one day. But watching these children come week after week without any progress, it was apparent that most of them would never live a “normal” life. It seemed hopeless and in many ways I felt like a failure. I kept asking myself, “What am I doing wrong that this child can’t walk or talk or concentrate?”

Vivian blows bubbles to help strengthen her vocal muscles to help her to speak

Mama Naomy plays with her daughter who is using a sitting device

I spent a lot of time thinking and stressing over it and finally had a conversation with David, one of the occupational therapists. He explained to me that physical therapy, in many cases is a very long process that can take several years. Disabilities in which the brain is effected can take even longer. He went on to tell me that my year of service spent with these children would only be a small fraction of the time it would take for them to recover, but he was reassuring that every stage was very necessary, even if I couldn’t see it. Just then, I pointed out a small boy at the Centre that, at that moment, was walking across the floor to chase a ball. I said, “He still can’t talk. I’ve tried everything. He only wants to play with the ball.” David replied, “You should have seen him when he first came to the Centre almost two years ago. He had to be carried in because he couldn’t walk, but now that he is walking, we are trying to focus on his speech.” This was a complete eye-opener for me. There was so much I hadn’t realized and I began to see my work with these children in a whole new light. I began to appreciate every moment I had with them. And the more I did this I began to notice small improvements with each child that I had previously over-looked. I now notice when a boy takes his first step, even if he falls on his second. I notice when a girl talks in gibberish, even if she can’t say any words. I notice when a child concentrates on an activity, even if it’s only for a few seconds more than from the week before. I began to ask myself, “How many “normal” people will get this opportunity to be here with this child at this moment? What's a "normal” life, but ordinary? I’m so glad that I don’t have a “normal” life!

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