volunteering as an attitude
Text: Rute Barbedo
One brunette crosses the corridor, again and again, with stacks of papers under her arm. No glasses, no pen on the right ear, no high hills and no homework. Far from stereotypes, in the end, the Portuguese volunteer Tânia Ferreira feels like an English teacher. Since she’s in Tallinn (for the past five months), her daily routine takes place in JUKS Development Center, a place designed for people with special needs, after they had finished primary school.
Tânia assists the “kids” in their daily tasks, plays games with them and makes their time more joyful, especially on Fridays, the day of museums, fairs, workshops and cultural events. But they are not kids at all; “they are from my age, but behave like children”, illustrates Tânia, 24. “Our main goal is to help them to become adults, so that they can fit society”, adds Eeva Koplimets, coordinator in the Development Center, explaining that this process is mostly achieved through learning activities.
While the mornings are structured between mathematics, history, life skills and other kind of lessons, afternoons are punctuated with more freedom: theatre, music, enjoying the snow, the company, food and English lessons are some of the activities. “They are really motivated; always trying to remember some words in English and using the language to interact with me”, tells the Portuguese volunteer. Actually, if you see Tânia in a bus stop counting until 10 in English with one of her “pupils”, don’t find it strange: practice is something that can happen in any corner.
Also for Tânia, volunteering in JUKS is a learning experience. “In the beginning I didn’t know how to react. In my first day, we went to the forest together and they were screaming, laughing, trying to kiss me and to hug me… all at the same time!” But very naturally, behaviors started to organize themselves and, now, dealing with people with disabilities is not part of a hidden world anymore.
Acting like adults
Nevertheless, other question is raised: how is it to be an adult? Eeva answers that is all about knowing how to behave, how to be independent in different tasks and how to follow responsibilities. As people in JUKS have mostly learning disabilities, building this experience and knowledge becomes a constant process. “From here, they can fit the open market or go to our work center [also part of JUKS, it is a place where people can produce many art pieces and other objects which are to be sold afterwards]”, says Eeva, explaining that the organization pays much attention to their work placement and career development.
Also emotions fit in a relevant part of their “learning plan”. That’s why JUKS invests in drama (there’s a theatre group that presents shows in different places of Estonia, during each year), music, design, glass works, painting, ceramics and textile workshops, as well as in occupational therapy and rehabilitation programs. “Everything we do comes from our experience. We see clearly that this is the best for them”, assures the coordinator.
The methods and working procedures in Estonian social system were also something which boosted Tânia’s curiosity to be part of this project. “I wanted to know how the system worked here”, she says, adding that this is her third international experience – before, Tânia lived in Check Republic and in Romania, as an Erasmus student and an intern. But a post-soviet system was “something new and interesting, because it comes from a paternalist conception, which is really different from Portugal, where institutionalization is the last alternative”.
As knowledge is an endless path, Tânia has already another experience on her sleeve: a Scottish center which for people with difficult social backgrounds, such as drugs addiction or disrupted families, is waiting for her to begin the summer.