Monday 14 September 2015

Communities Connecting

Despite having worked to get people who live in hospital out I have stayed pretty clear of public commentary and the rights and wrongs of the misuse of hospitals in providing support to people with leaning disabilities and / or mental health needs experiencing distress. That’s because regardless of what side of the fence we’re are on the debate is too vitriolic and swapping one form of hate, vitriol and dogma for another hardly seems to me the way to get a healthy debate going with those with the power and influence to change things.

So, as with much else, I do what I can. I try to notice, understand and respect all opinions, even when it’s hard to stomach, and to make my own sense of what it all means. Politics, policy and their implications for real people; it’s all too hard for me to get my head around.

I fundamentally learned the importance of “doing what you can, doing something or doing anything” in 2011. I was visiting a group of women living on the banks of one of the biggest rivers in Bangladesh. They were working with a Charity and learning to come together, save together and lead their communities to change their fortunes.  I’m not clear what really propelled me to Bangladesh that first time, but I do know that one of the things I was interested in was how people living in extreme poverty and the worst of circumstances empowered themselves. They had to have something to teach me, teach us.

Living on the banks of those big rivers in Bangladesh is for the poorest of the poor. The rivers flash flood. It happens in minutes. Water from the mountains pours down in seconds. There’s no warning and the floods wipe out whole communities. The women I visited there had experienced a recent flood of huge magnitude.  The people who met me as I arrived were unlike every other group I had visited. They were quiet, sombre and fearful. I was looking at collective post-traumatic shock.

The women walked me down to the water’s edge, taking it in turns to tell me (although I didn’t understand their words, I got it well enough) about the ferocity of the water and the people they had lost. I lifted my eye to see the residue of their human effort. Sandbags were scattered; thrown over the banks by human hands in a last desperate act to stay the force of a ferocious flood that would rob them of their children, homes and livelihoods. They could do so little, in the face of so much.

I braced myself hard trying not to cry. How do you cry for people who are not crying for themselves? I was hopeless in the face of the devastation around me. I lost all sense of why I was there and lost all hope that there was anything that I could do to impact on pain of this intensity and that’s when it came to me. You can do what you can.

Cut to 2015 and I find myself gearing up for another trip. It will be my 4th. Much more clearly focused now my efforts are honed on raising money for an orphanage that I have visited before and have confidence in. The orphanage exists hand to mouth and has been close to closure due to lack of funds. Over 830 otherwise abandoned girls have made their way through it’s doors. I can connect to that. I can do something about that ……. An institution without which the girl’s lives would be unthinkable – violated by the worst abuses and deprivations.

Setting fundraising targets is an arbitrary business. When you set a target what can you possibly know of who will step forward to help and how? Somehow it rolls out. There’s no grand plan. Kind people just seem to step out of the woodwork offering imaginative ways to help.

So it was with Beyond Limits. A “chewing the cud” conversation with Doreen and Max over dinner went something like “wouldn’t it be great to get some of the people Beyond Limits supports involved in your fundraising efforts?”.  Yep, it would. “Do you think we could get a Carl’s Small Spark to help us?”.

Carl Poll was a gifted man who worked tirelessly in his lifetime to ensure people with learning disabilities and mental health needs were respected and celebrated for their gifts and talents. He also had a strong connection to India and what he could learn from the poor there. A fund set up in his memory offers small grants to support people to connect to their communities. We made an application and were gifted £200. The deal was to fund the expenses of people who couldn't afford to help otherwise to come together with their community to raise funds for Happy Homes.

And so my story comes full circle.

On Saturday 12th September I found myself standing amongst the hugest pile of bric a brac I have ever set eyes on, drowning under the weight of a cake stall that would have fed an army, sweating at the cooker in the kitchen of a salvation army hall as we pumped out buckets of lentil curry and rice for stream of people that looked like they may never stop. Whatever community is we were in the thick of it and at its heart and the engine, the architects, the spirit were people who were discharged from Winterbourne View.

Steve, my husband, had come to help. During the day I glanced out often from the steam of the kitchen to see him bent over the bric a brac immersed in conversation with other stallholders, laughing, enjoying the hubbub. It was really clear to see. Beyond Limits were doing something incredible. The organisers were doing something incredible. The day passed in a blur, the crowds died off. We started to pack away donating all remaining food to the local homelessness hostel and all remaining clothes to the Salvation Army. Steve and I sat with Doreen and Max to count the takings, recounting our favorite moments from the day.

Somewhere in the counting Steve remarked on the incredible lengths that the staff and people Beyond Limits had gone to. I said “the people that helped today Steve, they were discharged from Winterbourne View you know” and that’s when I saw it. The magnitude of what they had done. His face was pure puzzlement, pure disbelief. It was too hard to compute. He could make no sense of it because today was just ordinary or maybe extraordinary. The organisers glowed in their kindness and effort. How on earth could they be people who’d needed to live in a place like that and how on earth could they be giving back with so much generosity and vibrancy if they had?

Somewhere amidst the rights and wrongs, the policy and politics, the polemics, the vitriol and “resettlement” is a quiet simplicity. Living life as an equal is about giving back. Giving back ennobles people. Empathy for others shows no mercy. On Saturday people who have been treated appallingly by the system showed us the depth of their humility and forgiveness. Two groups of women who’ve faced the worst horrors imaginable held their hands out over thousands of miles and touched in recognition that out of the worst pain grows the deepest learning, greatest kindness and real meaning. A group of women who came from an institution claimed their freedom and gave security and life to a group of girls on the other side of the world. Not bad for a Saturday morning’s work.

Thank you so much to the organisers, Beyond Limits, Carl’s Small Sparks, Actionaid Uk and Actionaid Bangladesh for your support.

Judith North
September 2015


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