A volunteer’s view from our summer camp

Our volunteer reading to childrenYulia Bondarkova has volunteered with our partners Sunflower, to help them run their summer camp for parents who grew up in orphanages and their young children.  This is her story.

“As it happened my first meeting with the families happened quite naturally – I traveled with them on the train.  We met at the station, bought our tickets, and loaded our noisy group with its bags and baggage, little children and one pregnant mother onto the train.  It was a long journey with two changes.  There was no way of knowing that these attentive, caring mothers, who were all helping each other, had had such a hard life.  En route the children played, read books, sang and ran about the carriage.  They ate together, offering bits to each other, laughed, cried, and chatted with other passengers.

The parents were very interested in me, and it was important for them to know why I was going on camp.  Now I understand that each of them took a conscious decision to take part in the camp, they discussed their aims with the leaders, and so they naturally assumed that I must have my reasons.  Of course I did, and as far as I could I shared them with the group.

We travelled home together too, but by this time we were carrying the experience of living together, of sharing creative activities, events, discussions, difficult questions, and we had helped and supported each other.  The children and their parents had become closer, and you could see that for some of the mothers this was a difficult process.  They wanted to go home, to their familiar surroundings, where, on the one hand, they could hide from awkward questions, and on the other hand they could try out some of the things they had learnt and could try to change their life-style based on what they had learnt about themselves and their children at the camp. 

The conditions at the camp are quite spartan both for the parents and the leaders.  We lived according to a timetable in which everything had a time and a place: activities for parents and children together and separately, creative workshops and relaxation, sessions for resolving questions about the daily routines, morning and evening discussion sessions, and a chance for the parents to go for a walk or swim while the children had their daily nap.

I particularly remember one of these walks with two of the mothers.  As we walked we talked about the camp and about their life with the children at home.  I understood that they are genuinely worried about their children, often they don’t understand what is going on, there is a great deal they can’t do, but they want to change something in their relationship with their children, and they want to become better parents.  I remember their spellbound faces when I did simple things with their children – told them a story, resolved an argument between them, drew them into an activity, or helped them cope with a stressful situation.  I realised that, although they might look like adults, inside they are really unsure children, and very traumatised ones too.  I was surprised when I discovered that they called us, the leaders, “grown-ups”.

I realised that this intensive experience at summer camp isn’t planned to resolve problems, but to create a precedent for a thinking family life, which allows the parents to think about themselves and their children in different situations, to observe, to ask questions, and to try to answer them.  It is hugely important for all the parents that they are seen as individuals, that they are listened too, and accepted as they are.  They don’t have to hide or play a role while they are with the group.  This atmosphere of trust helps the parents to put the effort into changing without being scared.

The leaders are the real jewel in the summer camps.  It is a team of professionals, unafraid of difficulties, prepared to risk negative attitudes from their “clients”.  They are able to control their own sense of hurt, naming problems, but always doing so tactfully, and giving practical suggestions for how to resolve situations.  The team is totally united, able to understand each other almost without words, intelligent, honest and open to different points of view.  For me the experience was priceless, both as a professional and as a human being.  I am so happy to be part of the team.”