A supporter recently asked me what kind of vocational preparation and career building education exists at Warm Hearth and how we approach the issue of what will happen to our residents in the future.
It is an important question. We do have vocational preparation right now. Almost all of our residents are enrolled in a three-year university program for individuals with special needs, which is the first program of its kind in Armenia. Our residents are able to choose between two majors: carpet weaving (an ancient Armenian art) and gardening. In addition to the university courses, we offer vocational courses in our own home to facilitate their independent living skills and to increase their quality of life. Some examples of these courses include: managing and counting money, and basic cooking. Our residents are all orphaned individuals with disabilities over the age of eighteen. When they graduated from high school they were required to leave the state-run orphanages and had nowhere to live except the large psychiatric institutions. This is why we started Warm Hearth.
In regard to our residents’ future, the truth is multi-faceted.
Some of our residents will probably never be able to live independently due to the severity of their disability.
Others have this potential, to be sure, and we would love to see them on their own some day. However, this is a complicated issue since society is still such that they are marginalized and not readily accepted in the community. Armenian society is also very family-oriented and it would be perceived as strange for an individual or two to live alone. Even healthy individuals rarely choose this option.
Aside from societal reasons, living on their own might also be a very difficult emotional endeavor. In fact, some of the residents that are closer to being ready to live on their own don’t want to leave at this time. They would struggle with loneliness due to the fact that they have lived in orphanages their entire lives and have literally been surrounded by people. Our residents, by and large, enjoy sharing rooms with others and having a lot of people around.
I hope that when the day comes that our residents feel ready to move on that both society and we can support them in this. It is a goal of ours, and part of our mission to see them flourish and live as independently as possible. In the meantime, we are committed to providing them a home as long as is necessary, desired, and in some cases, for life.
August 12th, 2010
It has been almost a week since coming to Armenia. We have come, this time, in full-fledged summer. I'd like to say that summer is waning and with it, the heat. But it seems like it is holding strong. The residents have that summer sun-kissed look about them. The house is surrounded (literally) by flowers and vines heavy with grapes. The flowers and bushes that they have planted open wide in the twilight and early morning light - before the heat overtakes them.
Most of our residents seem so contented and well. Since last I was here there have been so many changes in our residents and in our home. The first day as I walked slowly around the home, drinking it all in, I was struck by how sacred the last year has been. Time can be such a sacred thing, can it not?
Since I was here last, the residents have been attending college. In fact, they are already gearing up for their second year, which begins on the first of September. We were able to talk about their days at the college, the friends they have made, their specialties. I was able to see some of the handworks they have made, which are quite incredible. I'll attach some pictures soon for you to see. You won't believe it.
We've celebrated two birthdays since we've been here - Davit's and Anahit's. Anahit was so overjoyed at her celebration that she was moved to tears. This isn't an uncommon thing for our residents as they still don't take advantage of a day that celebrates their lives. We have partaken of the most delicious layered cake with chocolate shavings, made by the community assistants. One of the traditions of Warm Hearth is to go around the room on someone's birthday and to say your wishes for that person for the coming year. How precious to be privy to that conversation - to hear their loving wishes for one another. After cake and coffee, we had a sing-a-thon and they sang songs both old and new, Armenian and English.
I've been able to watch them hard at work making beautiful crafts and carpets (we have our own looms now!). I have loved seeing them in their kitchen cleaning up after meals, taking part in their livelihood.
I have also visited both Anna and Sassoon, in two respective clinics, this week. All that there is to say has been said before. We want the best for them. We don't know how to provide it for them always. Erik, our friend and trainer from last year, arrives this weekend. I am hopeful that our time with him will be life-giving and that this life will extend to Sassoon and Anna somehow or another. Sassoon has deteriorated quite a bit due to such a lengthy stay in the clinic. As I showed him photographs today of the other residents, his former orphanage in Kapan, himself, even, he was unable to recognize most of the people and places. Last year this was not the case. He barely spoke today. He looked long into my eyes. And into the eyes of Alya, our director here. We looked back. And held his gaze. And his hand. There was not much else to do.
The water in living wells
does not stagnate;
the more you tear from your heart
the more of it you keep.
- Andrei Voznesensky
I hope that Voznesensky’s words are true.
There is much to tell. As the days pass, I will write more. Tomorrow we are headed out of town to spend the day and picnic and sit under the sky, and drink in the clear village air. We are all looking forward to it. We feel your presence here. We look around the home and know how much you are with us through your gifts, your contributions, the light in the residents' eyes. Thank you. From all our hearts.
With love and gratitude,
Natalie (for us all)
August 20th, 2010
The days have passed too quickly. It is always this way when days are brimming. Our time here has been precious. It always is. This time I have had the pleasure of bringing my husband and baby along with me - which has been beautiful as I've longed to integrate my two families into one even if for the briefest time. This has also made for longer days than is even usual (hence fewer and delayed letters to you). It has, however, been worth it as the joy in letting these two families of mine co-mingle has been a dream I've long held in my heart.
My residents, the children of my heart, are well. We talked yesterday about things both difficult and lovely. We talked about their struggles and their joys. They are infinitely proud of their one year at the college in the special program and are excited to go back on the first of September. Some of the works of their hands have been handed over to me - as gifts and to show to those of you whom I am able. I will try to bring them carefully home. I look forward to sharing them.
As I mentioned, we had a day-long excursion to Arzni, a wooded spot outside of Yerevan with springs of fresh water. The water is clean and healing and people come from miles to drink of the water, to heal their ailments. I love the way that Armenians here have such respect for clean water and maintain such attachments to place. This is something that we have lost in the United States, in many ways, and it is refreshing to me. We enjoyed a few puppet shows (the puppeteers came along with us, making the whole day possible), some Armenian barbeque, fresh cake... We danced to music under the trees, walked along the paths to the water springs. A group of us went to explore a nearby church. It was good to spend the day together, to rest together, to laugh and sit together.
We also had the training for our staff since I last wrote. Erik Logan, our trainer from last year, came to continue the training. We are grateful for his generosity - the way he gave of his time and experience and heart. We are also grateful for our staff - the way that they listen and seek to understand, even when it is hard to see another perspective. We are grateful to our translator - dear Anna - whose laugh and goodness and kindness make the trainings what they are. The training was hard in that we had a lot of questions, a lot of concerns about how to best care for our residents...and there was much to trudge through. But trudge we did and I'm grateful for the patience on every side. I do believe that our staff will be better equipped to care for our residents as a result of these efforts and conversations.
The work continues. It takes sometimes all the strength that we have, all the courage we can muster up, all the patience in the world (or so it seems). I am not alone by any means in taking these steps. In fact, the people who are here from day to day living next to our residents, loving them, knowing their particularities, their dreams and fears, they are taking steps, climbing mountains each day. They are the ones extending their hands, extending hope, to our residents. They are the hands of God in this world, as are you who make their work possible in your myriad of ways.
I have said before and will say again that somehow through and because of Warm Hearth, I am blessed to know some of the very best people in both the United States and in Armenia. I have the privilege of working beside people I consider to be heroes, people with the greatest and largest hearts. When I sit around a table here, with the residents, and with those who work on their behalf in Armenia I cannot help but be moved by these lives that I am privy to partake in. The same overwhelmingness has occurred to me in the States as I have sat with many of you, read your letters, received your gifts.
My cup runneth over as do the springs in Arzni.
I will write more soon of our time together and decisions that were made....
I have attached our summer newsletter for your perusal. I hope these stories find you well. We are grateful for each of you and your contributions to Warm Hearth.
It has been too long since I have written. For this, I apologize. This is due to the fact that my personal life has been more hectic than ever before. Suffice it to say that a cross-country move, three local moves and having a baby in the last year have taken a toll. If tolls can be good and bad, then and only then, is that an apt metaphor.
This time around Warm Hearth has been one of the constants in my life and it has been a joy to watch the way that life there has found its rhythm. I am in awe of the way the staff members are creating a beautiful home life with the residents, not for the residents. It is a joint effort and a creative act, as any one who has tried their hand at “home life” knows. It is full of making art and making meals, cultivating the soil of our garden, growing flowers, sharing songs, having visitors, sharing our vision, reaching out for strength and reaching in.
As Warm Hearth becomes a place with roots in the community and on that little plot of land in 3rd Village, I have to hope that this is transforming for our residents. Having uprooted myself this past year, I have thought much about the need we as humans have for roots, and how little our residents have known what I have known in my life, to say the least. It is hard to believe that this home we have started on their behalf will be theirs, we pray, lifelong.
Anything lifelong is rare especially in the world of group homes and for individuals with disabilities and mental illness, – in our country and none less in Armenia. Heck, anything lifelong is rare no matter who you are or where you live. And it is not easy to make the lifelong happen. In some ways it is silly to even claim it as one’s vision, but we do.
Our Anna, who had been home and well for a year (after a long stay in a clinic), is now in a short-term clinic yet again. And we are trying to figure out how to care for her, how to make this home hers. The same goes for Sassoon. Most of you know these stories. They are stories that continue, that circle around, that leave us joyful and sorrowful both, time and again. This is an unwieldy life we live. I'm sure I don't have to tell you that.
I’m heading back to Armenia in August. Erik, our friend who came to the home last year and one with a wealth of experience in group homes is coming as well to aid our staff, to consider with us, to sit with us in these struggles. We are grateful for him. This time I’ll also be bringing my husband and baby. It will be their first time to Warm Hearth and I look forward to watching our little family be folded into my family there, to those brief weeks where my two families are one. Some of my roots are there, in 3rd Village, as unlikely as that seems.
Sometimes the surprises of life are our richest portions, combining the bitter with the sweet.
Thank you for listening, for walking with us on what often seems like a circular journey. May you know you are a part of all of this. And may you be well as you journey in your own homes.
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