For the majority of chronically and terminally ill children and for those with disabilities, the BCH Summer House is a place where they can be independent. Of course, most of them need helpers to get around, eat meals, wash and look after themselves. Nevertheless, at the Summer House, they are free from the constant supervision of their parents, who, with the best motives in the world, are sometimes actually exacerbating their child’s problems. We give the children as much freedom as possible, to do whatever they can. We help them only when they need it.
The children frequently ask if they can help the cook - peeling potatoes, making ravioli, baking biscuits etc - and they ask if they can help the volunteers tidy and clean the bedrooms, weed the flowerbeds and so on.
There is another important detail of life at the Summer House: we don’t do it for the children, we do it with the children! We allow them to express themselves, to show what they know and what they can do. It is not just the volunteers who organise competitions and events for the children but the children do so for the volunteers.
Last year, the children decided to hold a comedy evening in the style of a popular show on Russian TV called KVN. There were two teams and it was decided that each team would have to retell an old fairy tale in a modern manner, write 5 riddles, answer 25 questions, draw pictures of famous world leaders and so on and so forth. The volunteers were given just one day to prepare. The children took the role of the jury, with “nice” jurors and “nasty” jurors, just like the real KVN. It was stupendous! Each team was made up of a mix of Belarusian and Welsh volunteers. You should have heard the fairytales! And as for the handmade costumes! Everything was wonderful but even better still, our teams actually argued that the jury had not marked them fairly – just like the real KVN. We had to do a bit of peacemaking afterwards.
With another group we decided to hold a Venetian carnival with the volunteers helping the children to make their costumes as well as their own. Then everyone came down the catwalk and told us the story behind their costume. There was no end to their fantasy, from a dead princess to Frankenstein, from Snow White to the evil witch Baba Yaga. After the competition, no one wanted to take their costume off. The volunteers pleaded with me to let them all go out into the village after supper and parade around in their finery so I gave permission and off we went, volunteers, children and everyone. We visited all the houses, sang songs, danced and recited rhymes. The villagers gave us all sorts of delicious treats. We didn’t get back until midnight, weighed down with fruit, vegetables, sandwiches, rolls and sweets. The children joked that if we ever ran out of food they’d go out and get enough for everyone.
The Summer House volunteers are very special people. It is no holiday being a volunteer here, sometimes they are hard at work for 18 hours a day helping the child or young person in their care. They have to help the children eat, go to the toilet and wash, help the child in the kitchen, be involved in the games, competitions, discotheques, camp fires and so on. Only people who love and respect children and youngsters can work at the Summer House, only people who are cheerful by nature and capable of self-sacrifice.
Luckily for our children, each fortnightly camp attracts a multinational team of volunteers. Prime among these are the volunteers from Wales who have been with us since the Summer House began. We also get volunteers from the Belarusian LYVS youth voluntary service, France, Germany, Holland, Japan, Serbia and other countries. Each person brings his or her own talents, skills and traditions. Thanks to this mix, our summer camps are not only about playing but about learning ‘what, where, when’ and there is something of a Travellers’ Club about them.
Our Welsh friends stand out, of course. I remember each and every one of them. They are remarkable young people, very responsible, good hearted, always ready to help, to learn and to teach. I only have good words to say about them all, but there are always those who particularly stick in my memory. Last year, Beth was at the camp at the same time as me. She is always calm, kind and polite. I asked her to help me look after an 18 year old girl in a wheelchair who is heavy and not easy to manoeuvre or to get in and out of the chair. There were three of us, me, Beth and a nurse. When the nurse and I were busy elsewhere, other volunteers helped Beth. On day four, the girl wrote a letter and asked for it to be read out round the camp fire. I could barely hold back the tears as she described how grateful she was to Beth and how, for the first time, she had been made to feel like an equal human being. I am so grateful to Welsh parents for having such wonderfully nice and helpful children like Beth and her volunteers.
I have enjoyed writing this and if you have found it interesting, I would like to do write another missive later in the year. I look forward to meeting you again!
You can read more about how Irina came to work at the hospice here.