Anchored in hope
- July 1, 2013
It is seldom that one writes about something difficult and painful and yet the experience brings a big smile to one’s face. I recently attended the 25th anniversary of Anchorage – a sheltered – workshop where mentally challenged adults earn their dignity through work. Gradually, as a life-space, it now encompasses dance, music, yoga, mathematics and most importantly, how to be happy.
I was reminded of my first fieldwork during my master’s in social work, which was with mentally challenged children and their parents. I was not even 20 then, and it was heart-wrenching to see the families struggle with their special children, while they themselves were clueless of their uniqueness. I got so entangled with their lives that my teacher would say, “You have to learn to keep a professional distance and maintain objectivity and not get too emotional.” I have never understood why the word ‘emotional’ is often used in a derogatory way. Over the years, at least for me, professional has been personal, objectivity, an illusion and being emotional has meant the constant presence of the heart with the head.
As they say in film language, cut to 2013. More than 20 years later, I am sitting amidst a group of special adults, with their jubilant families, to celebrate the anniversary. While there was joy in the air, it was no secret how challenging it must be to live and work with them, more so as they grow up, have hormonal changes and go through emotional upheavals. I began piecing their lives as I got to know more about each one of them. While in this sector it is not uncommon that fathers abandon their children, here, most parents were so dedicated that they had made caring for their child their sole purpose of life.
Some of the founding members had lost the reason they first got involved with Anchorage-their son, brother or sister-but that did not take away anything from their commitment to the organisation. The special adults, put up an impressive show, whose efforts were fully appreciated by families and friends. When a mother saw her 6ft son hit the beat, or a sister saw her big brother lift his hand at the right time, or a 25-year-old autistic girl actually smiled, not just their families, but the entire audience shared that joy. And this was a cross-section of society, making Anchorage a perfect equaliser. They all came together for a common goal and no barriers played any role. Wish this was true of the world.
I had been to one of their units a few days earlier and was overwhelmed enough to commit two days in a month for a workshop. Communicating is always a big challenge for special people, who feel a lot more than they are able to express. Maybe miming, role playing or just opening up their arms would make them more understood. Every day must be an experiment for the staff, as they observed each adult, in minute ways, to find out which of their techniques were working and which were not.
From that interaction, I remembered many of them, and so did they, when we later met for the celebrations. I had not been hugged like that in a long while. They were pure loving hugs from strangers, who had just become friends for life. Even families of adults with autistic tendencies, who we know do not relate much to anybody, were rejoicing with the same gusto. These adults never smiled much, but their family knew they were happy.
As I held myself from welling up and unabashedly smiled, I knew my life had become more enriched. The experience of working with the marginalised has always helped me take baby steps towards the person I wish to be and the world I wish to see. Long way, but I am on my way, with Nikita, Yusuf, Kabir, Priyanka, Crescentio, Dilbur, Dinyar and all those whose names I will soon know.