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Volunteers' Stories

From IVS, the International Voluntary Service

Founded in 1931, IVS is a non-profit organisation that promotes peace and social justice through volunteering.

This article series will bring you stories from their volunteers about their inspirational experiences helping local communities n the UK and around the world.

Helping young disabled people in Estonia

by Christine Hameed, a long-term IVS volunteer

Tapa is an Estonian town that Estonians make fun of for its dreariness.
It has two supermarkets housed in sheds of breeze block with corrugated iron roofs, an onion-domed church, and terrace after terrace of barracks dating from Soviet occupation.

But the Soviets also left a humanitarian legacy: Imastu, a 1960s home for people with both physical and mental health difficulties, hidden away in a pine forest, four kilometres from Tapa.

Imastu is a residential school, caring for over 100 children and young adults with physical and mental health difficulties. They are split into five “family” groups, where they live under the supervision of staff and volunteers.
I stayed there for a month in the summer of 2013, volunteering with the best of European and Asian youth to share – albeit for a short time – looking after the residents.

My first reaction was that I did not feel that I could not look after these unfortunate young people, but when I left, I had formed such a deep attachment to some of them that it was hard to say goodbye.

I have volunteered 10 times throughout the world, and I have nearly always been 50 years older than my fellow volunteers. It is a distinction that my fellow volunteers are generally too polite to acknowledge, although they will sometimes ask me what it was really like in the 1960s.

In Imastu, my age was tacitly acknowledged when I was given the guest room, while four young female students slept in the music room.
We drew lots to decide which group of young people we would attach ourselves to. I was with Lenka, a Czech medical student, who could speak Russian – useful because the older carers had to learn Russian in Soviet times.

Our routine was simple: after breakfast, we would go to the top of the building to the living quarters of the young people, aged from about five to early twenties. We would play ball or draw pictures; anything within their ability.
Those who couldn’t walk would be placed into wheelchairs, and we would all descend by lift to beautifully maintained grounds, where the more able would help those in wheelchairs to lie on a rug for a few hours in the sun.
No matter the differences between us, our charges managed to relate to either Lenka or me.

I thought that Hanna was a teenage boy, but she was a stick-thin woman of 22. When we were inside, she would lie in my lap, guiding my hand so that I would stroke her hair.

Margus was a beautiful boy with expressive, sad, hazel eyes. He made fluttering bird-like gestures with his hands, and then would let out an agonising scream at which point I would comfort him on my shoulder.
We never shared meals with our “new families,” but ate dinner in the staff room at four o’clock in the afternoon, for the convenience of the cooks. The teenage volunteers grew tired of cabbage, meat in brown gravy, and a jelly or milk pudding. They asked me to complain, but I told them this was how we ate in the 1940s, and I was glad to relive my childhood.

The rest of the day was ours. The volunteers made every minute count. We would take a bus to a lake to swim, or play volleyball in the grounds, with everyone pretending not to notice I had difficulty in keeping up.

At weekends we planned elaborate tours of Estonia and Latvia, working out bus and train times. The excursions always started with the three-kilometre walk to Tapu railway station. On these occasions I had to draw attention to my age and relative affluence. No, I was not going to spend the night in a bus shelter or on the beach, but check into a hotel.

I would meet bedraggled volunteers the following morning, offering them my shower as I had not checked out of my €50-a-night accommodation, but they always refused.

This has been my rule for the last 10 years: to keep up with everything I have volunteered for, but to say no to some extramural activities. I refused to ride a horse in the desert when working in an orphanage in Mongolia; I stood at the foot of a waterfall in Thailand, adamant that I would not clamber across wet stones to reach the source.

I marvel at how in 2008 I left a Damascus night club in the small hours while other volunteers raved, so that I could walk alone in the safety of darkness back to a Palestinian camp.

Discreetly, I spend on taxis, hotels and restaurants, but the young volunteers proudly refuse to allow me to buy them lunch.

This is as far as the 70-year-old me will go once a year. I hope I have helped orphans, disabled people, and others who do not share my good fortune, before I return to my successful children and adorable grandchildren.

 

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If you are over 50 and want to volunteer with IVS please contact outgoing@ivsgb.org

Our projects in 60 countries worldwide are open to volunteers of all ages and can be accessed at http://www.workcamps.info/icamps/camps.html

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