My experience in Sonček

This morning was my last morning in Sonček. I was not expecting to be so sensitive at the moment I would have to tell them goodbye.

Friday after Friday, relationships were building gradually and subtly. I was coming every Friday from November to March at this workshop in Koper, where people with motor and mental disabilities can meet and work, create some handcraft and earn a little income thanks to it. Workshops are part of Sonček organization, which helps people with disabilities in lot of different ways, all around Slovenia.

With some other volunteers, I was coming there to give some company to these people, to help them a bit with their work and to go with them for a walk or anything they would need outside, like to go to the pharmacy, to the market or to the coffee.

I decided to come regularly, every Friday, because I thought that this experience would be particularly worth it, for them as for me, if it would be on the long term, if we would have time to really build relationships. So I was going there every Friday even if I was not sure about what I was learning and about what I was offering.

Lots of times I didn’t feel really useful and most of the time I could not understand what these people were telling me because of the langage barrier (most of them talk only Slovenian and I understand it very little). In addition, some of them didn’t want to communicate with me – and I didn’t want to push.

However, in spite of that, lots of smiles and lots of words have been exchanged. I was going quite regularly for long walks with I., sometimes to the market or to the pharmacy, and we were talking together a lot. She can talk in English quite well; it’s not always easy for me to understand her because of her articulation problems, but we were taking our time: she was repeating as much as necessary while I was walking at her rythm: slowly but safely. I was also practicing my Slovenian language with her and sometimes asking her for some new words, even if I knew that I would not understand perfectly the word she would tell me. I went also quite often for a walk with H., who was walking fast, a bit folded, the head first, but from time to time stumbling. He was not talkative but he was always smiling so much. In my eyes H. looks most of the time really peaceful; but I don’t know much about him – it’s about my feelings when I see him. I also went several times for a walk with F. This giant, walking so fast, repeating and repeating the same sentences, day after day, speech maybe adressed to someone I could not see, speech that I could not understand even if it was in English. F. was in his own world but he seemed sometimes happy to see me: a smile and then his perpetual talk, about today, how are you today, yes, yes, Monday…

Despites the walks I was also staying at the workshops, helping to make necklaces, postcards, masks, lavender bags, and so on. But most of the time only giving company, listening, trying to know how to help them to feel good with me, to feel safe, trying to connect with them even if we were not sharing the same language. When I say that, I’m thinking particularly about N. who was strongly holding my arm, smiling and approaching her face closer and closer to mine while she was telling me a long speech in which most often the only words I could understand were ‘dom’ and ‘mami’ (‘home’ and ‘mummy’). The social workers of Sonček were sometimes translating to me what she was saying: that’s how I learned about her issues, about her impossibility to accomplish her strong wishes, strong wishes which are hers for these last fifteen years and that most of people can usually accomplish without much struggle. I feel her situation as unfair, painfull and in the same time without any real solution and at that moments it appears to me really clearly that life can be as crual as generous and that it is really random if life is generous with you or not.

In April the work we had in Elerji Sonček (the place where people with disabilities regularly come for holidays) didn’t allow me to return to the workshop. When I came back in May, I was surprised how much these people and I were happy to see each other again. At that moment I understood that I had started to build relationships with them, at least with some of them. That’s what I felt again and even more today at the moment to say goodbye. I felt love for people with whom I actually shared quite a lot these last months.

What did I learn from this experience?

First, I probably became a bit more patient, I learned particularly how to slow down my rythm for following the rythm of someone else.

Secondly, I learned that I can relax, that I don’t have to wonder about how to behave with people with disabilities: as I am is fine. I don’t see them as stupid, not at all, I see them as people who have more struggles than the average. I don’t know how but maybe they do feel that and they do know that even if I’m particularly smiling and kind with them, I don’t talk to them as if they were foolish: I’m just trying to be warm enough that they could feel good with me. In addition, I also learned that it is not even a problem if I don’t understand half of what they are telling me: they will not become upset or mad to me, they like to talk to me anyway. Eventually, I concluded that it was indeed good not to push the ones who didn’t open up to me: with some of them it came slowly, with the other ones I guess that I would have need to stay with them much more time, to come more often for a longer time.

Thirdly, I might have understood a bit better what is different and what is similar between people with disabilities and people without. Both of groups of people have the same needs: physiological needs, safety and feeling of safety, to love and to be loved… What is different is that people with disabilities have much more struggle to fulfil their needs. As Daša says, they need much more time and much more help for almost everything.

To have the same needs is something really strong, it really helps to understand each other and to feel close. Furthermore, the experience of helping people with disabilities can also make us feel closer to them.

Eventually I also understood that I was right: that it was really worth to come regularly for a long time. I can only imagine how much more people who work with them on a really long-term get to know them and how rich it is, despite of all the difficulties.

I had the chance to meet Daša, Ana, Irena and Mojca, the social workers working there every day. It was a real pleasure to talk with Daša and Ana who explained me so much about these people and about their own working experience. The interview with Daša was so rich that it was really hard to cut some parts for publishing a written version of it. Daša really loves her job and anyone can see it: it is obvious that she is involved and motivated for what she does. And that is beautiful.

That’s why I invite you now to read her interview…

Anna Vittet, EVS Volunteer from France