As a rule, since leaving the UK, I’ve tried to keep my role within organisations purely consultatory. That is, I knew when I decided to do this that I didn’t want to work directly with the people the organisations supported – the “beneficiaries,” or more appropriately, the community partners. That is a role I felt – and still feel – should be occupied by the people who work directly for the organisation. The people who know those they support best because they are from the same community and cultural context, and know best what those folks will need going forward in part because they will be there with them.
Wanting to work in communities from which we do not come and in which we will not stay is a difficult path to tread. And of course it doesn’t always pan out the way we plan, in spite of our best intentions.
In the Philippines, one of the organisations I worked with to develop a social enterprise also had a gap in their service provision: they had for years supported a group of young people incarcerated in the adult prison just outside of town, but there were too many of them for the social worker to engage with alone, so in order to continue the support, I was asked to accompany her. Many of you likely read posts from way back then that talk about this adventure in more detail, so I won’t go into the specs too much here. Suffice it to say that my personal role wasn’t a therapeutic one; in accordance with the young people’s request, I taught English and the social worker feigned a teaching role in an effort to do proper one-one work with them. Her English wasn’t great, but her key working skills were on point…and the truth is that sometimes you have to get creative to get damaged young people to open up to you. While I endeavored to maintain strict boundaries and a modicum of distance from the kids, I couldn’t help but start to know them.
One of the young women never engaged in a single English lesson, but we eventually got wise and convinced her to draw while the others did English. Like many of them, she could neither read nor write in her own language. Unlike any of them, her arms were covered from wrist to shoulder in hundreds and hundreds of self-induced scars. A thousand and one cries for help that didn’t even fall on deaf ears because most of the time there was no one around to hear her, and when there was, and when they reached out, the life she knew – sleeping rough, chasing her demons and hunger away sniffing solvents, staying afloat via sex work beginning when she was 11 – that life was louder and more powerful than the voices offering her something different. At least she knew what to expect from the life she already had.
At Hogar Para Todos, I am in post to help with management and support practices, as well as to try to improve fundraising options. C is here to help the staff make better use of IT and to teach the kids some IT skills that might help them in their educations. But we live onsite, and so our experience of their lives is quite intense (their experience of ours, incidentally, is probably negligible – they are so used to people coming and going). Each one of them has an incredibly sad story to tell – judges don’t place you in care if you don’t. Some stories are worse than others; some are inconceivable. But while every story has left is keeper vulnerable and broken, there is usually room for healing.
The best thing we can do while we’re here is to develop a sense of structure that will help to continue to keep them and the many more kids who will walk through these doors as safe as possible, and to give the staff here as many tools as we can to facilitate their work. If we can be in any small way a part of the effort to give the children a fighting chance to rise above the ugly reality that has comprised their short lives thus far, to build something worth living for, that’d be excellent.
Forms and procedures don’t do that. People do that. But in my experience, even the greatest staff are hindered by a lack of the right tools. So we will work together to create those tools and systems. Some will work swimmingly; others will fail miserably, and we will start again. With a little luck, we’ll have a system in place that functions reasonably well by the time we go, but of course they will forever need adjustments and overhauls, because those systems and tools are meant to reflect the needs of the children, as well as those of the staff supporting them.
Change is not easy, but being capable of change and adaptable to changes around us is one of the greatest strengths an organisation – or a person – can possess. We’re all learning that lesson in Azogues right now.