26 January 2009

Changing Nappies, Changing Lives: Serving families of West Belfast

Below is an article recently written for the Campus Ministry newsletter at University of Dayton by a former Europe BVSer.  The article is a great example of the opportunities afforded through BVS Europe.    
            My name is Lauren Farrell and I graduated from the University of Dayton in 2006. I recently returned home to Rochester, NY from volunteering in Belfast, Northern Ireland at a cross community family center called Quaker Cottage. I found great satisfaction doing service while at UD and knew that I wanted to volunteer abroad after I graduated. I found Quaker Cottage (also referred to as "Quakers") through a faith-based volunteer program called the Brethren Volunteer Service (BVS).

"Cross community" essentially means that we served mothers and their children from both the Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods of West Belfast- the most disadvantaged area of the capital city where the 30-year long conflict known as "The Troubles" took place. The nature of the conflict was brutal and violent, characterized by paramilitary activity, bombings, and chaos. Though the conflict officially ended with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the violent past has left many negative effects on the society.

Quaker Cottage aims to bring healing and hope to mothers and children most affected by this violence. Though it promotes no particular religion it is based on the Quaker belief that there is "that of God in everyone." The mothers that come to the Quakers struggle with issues such as abuse, anxiety, bereavement, depression, domestic violence and parenting. The "Mummies," as we call them, are brought up to Quakers, which sits halfway up a mountain overlooking the industrial city of Belfast and the Irish Sea, twice a week for one full year. We liked to say that when the families come up to Quakers they are both literally and figuratively "rising above" their problems. They meet for about two and a half hours during which time they talk, share their struggles, receive support, advice and help, both from each other and the two experienced professional staff members of Quakers. They are served a homemade, wholesome meal prepared by the one of the Quakers staff or volunteers. They also can get pampered with massages, reflexology treatments, or by getting their nails painted. Many meaningful friendships are formed among the Mummies during this year. Meanwhile, their "babies" (ages 0-4) are being cared for in a colorful, fun, stimulating playroom and given the attention of loving, nurturing staff and volunteers who are constantly trying to help each child reach her potential. Quakers also offers programs for the school aged children and teenagers in the family. Part of the success of Quakers is attributed to the fact that it works with the mothers and the children together, not just the individuals.
As a volunteer, the playroom is where I spent most of my days- singing songs, going for walks to see the cows, changing "nappies" (the Northern Irish word for diapers), feeding babies, rocking them to sleep and sharing my love with some amazingly beautiful children, many of whom had very special needs.  I also would lead activities for the afterschoolers and mentor to the teens in the afternoons. A day did not go by that I did not feel a sense of reward and gratitude for the work that I was privileged to do at Quakers. I could really feel God's presence in the smiles of the children and the generosity of the Mummies. I learned not only how to change a nappy, drive a stick-shift mini-bus on the opposite side of the road and how to prepare a meal for ten, but also about supporting people, listening, the value of hard work, about a mothers' selflessness, the resilience of the human spirit and the power of unconditional love. My journey as a volunteer with BVS continues. I am planning on making a two year commitment to serve somewhere in Central America beginning this Spring. I have found volunteering to be an educational, rewarding, and growth experience and am grateful to be able to do this with my life.
If you have ever thought about taking a year or two to volunteer after college, I highly suggest listening to that voice inside and seeing where it leads you. There is so much need in our world and we have the power to make a difference in people's lives. To volunteer after college is a privilege that can help you to learn more about yourself and your world. There are so many opportunities to do service in and out of the United States. 

Lauren Farrell

Posted by Katie M.

08 January 2009

yet another reason to love BVS:

Excuses to travel to countries that I never had even dreamed of seeing.

I'm just back from a Christmas trip to Hungary and Bosnia to visit (some of) the volunteers out that way. It was amazing. I can't stop gushing about the trip, but the most interesting comment about my holiday came in the form of a one liner. I was back at my project for the first time since the holidays, so people were indulging me and my excitement and letting me chat away about it. I told them about Budapest and the baths and the food and I told them about Sarajevo and the mosques and the food. And then I told them about Mostar; I think I told them about the train ride there and how astoundingly beautiful it was, and the quaint old town, and the front line. I explained that the city is pretty much divided by the river: Croats on one side, Bosniaks on the other, with little to no crossing or mixing. My coworker said, "felt like home, huh?"

I noticed that, too, while I was there. In Mostar and in Belfast there's a line, one is water, cutting through a city, deep enough for diving, the other is a wall, made higher every few years and landscaped as a lasting feature of the community. Each of the sides has their own places of worship and football teams to cheer on, thoughts about who the "other" is and a deep pride in who they, themselves, are. And both of the cities also have hope. There are people, local and international, working for change, believing that unified cities can be even more beautiful than cities divided. It makes me feel like a very, very small piece of a HUGE jigsaw puzzle, and it's encouraging to see and learn from the other small pieces around the world.