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Discovering common ground and overcoming reservations

 

Frank Scheider, head of tourism at Lebenshilfe Bonn gGmbH

 

 

A youth retreat in partnership with disability organisations and youth work

This example tells the story of a 14-day inclusive youth retreat held near Husum in northern Germany in August 2017. Young people and young adults aged between 11 and 22 took part. The congregation of a Protestant church in Bonn and the organisation Lebenshilfe Bonn joined forces as project partners. 14 of the 34 participants were individuals with intellectual and (in some cases severe) physical impairments. The group was looked after by a team of eleven team leaders who represented the two project partners.

The goal of the project was to use a holiday setting to create an environment in which all participants could interact with one another respectfully and on an equal footing – with the aim of strengthening tolerance, empathy and mutual respect among them. Both project partners saw the trip as a non-formal education setting that would invite, yet not oblige, participants to become involved. This shared vision would help all participants to improve their sense of agency.

The concept and itinerary were drawn up and developed in three preparatory sessions and several “creative days” over a period of six months. All eleven team members were involved in the process from the very start. The result was a varied daily schedule designed to encourage commitment on the one hand and provide plenty of room for individuality and creativeness on the other.

Each day began with a theme tune that was repeated often throughout the entire retreat. For many disabled young people, this was an important point of orientation and a helpful way to keep track of time. For others, the tune conveyed a sense of togetherness and marked the start of a new programme element. This meant that the ability to tell the time was no longer important. Breakfast, like all the other meals, was eaten together, with random seating arrangements. After breakfast, the group started the day with a 20-minute or so wake-up session. These were planned and implemented by small groups of three to four team members. The session was followed by the first workshop of the day, with crafts, exercise and creative activities to choose from guided by one or two team members. Lunch was followed by either a second workshop or an excursion. Each week, participants went on one full-day excursion – once to the island of Föhr and once to the city of Flensburg. After dinner came a compulsory programme of activities that included team games, karaoke or team quizzes. At 10.15 pm, the day was brought to an end with a relaxation session. Once participants had been assisted with their night-time routines, the team met again to analyse the day, give feedback and plan subsequent activities. The team leader for the next day was assigned, important messages for the activities discussed and educational approaches agreed on. These meetings were led by a different team member each day.

 

Lebenshilfe Bonn gGmbH

During the long and intensive preparatory phase, the team members were able to develop a sense of unity. They found it was no longer important who came from which project partner or what their previous experience of retreats was. The daily structure developed by all of the team members was a valuable bonding experience; nobody felt anxious about the daily schedules. The workshops provided enough flexibility for team members to contribute their personal preferences, strengths and qualities and gave participants an opportunity for one-on-one interaction with the other team members. The activities were all well designed and the necessary materials purchased in advance. As a result, everyone could respond to situations, demand or weather as required and adapt the programme to participants’ individual needs.

There were plenty of challenges to overcome or deal with ahead of the trip in order to avoid conflict and allow each partner to position itself clearly within the project. The fundamentals were agreed by both project partners at management level prior to commencing the work sessions and creative days. Issues to be resolved included:

  • paid team members and volunteers working side by side in line with the respective project partner's customary practices,
  • the incompatibility of funding initiatives by disability organisations with those by child and youth services,
  • the question of which project partner would bear liability for the trip, who would be responsible for if the travel company were to become insolvent, and who would appoint team leaders,
  • use of any surplus funds or dealing with financial shortages,
  • crisis management and the PR work of the project partners,
  • the booking process and how the places would be split between the project partners,
  • setting of prices for participants.

 

 

 

Despite careful planning, the inclusive nature of the project bore some conflict potential. One such example was a disagreement with the cleaning staff in the accommodation. As a facility run by a disability organisation, the staff were used to group supervisors or team members tidying up the disabled youngsters’ rooms, suitcases and wardrobes. However, this was the first time in decades that they had to deal with a mixed group of young people with and without impairments and the staff were unused to the chaos in the bedrooms. It was expected that the team leaders would tidy up or that the young people would be disciplined. In youth work, the standard view is that young people's rooms and bags are off limits for team members so they would develop a sense of responsibility – but this was unacceptable to the cleaners. The situation escalated as photos were exchanged via the cleaners’ WhatsApp group showing mountains of laundry and untidy rooms. They were not open to discussing the matter or to requests to clean only the halls and sanitary facilities. In the end, the only solution was to put pressure on the facility director to get the cleaning staff to comply with his instructions, delete the photos and arrange new cleaning schedules. The staff were so used to team leaders acting on behalf of disabled people that they expected them to do the same for young people without an impairment. Inclusion generally poses a challenge for accommodation, but this example shows that such problems are not always due to logistics.

 

What made this inclusive trip so valuable for everyone involved? First and foremost, it was the effective team work by a large number of carers. It is thanks to them that such a wide range of activities could be offered. The young people without impairment also benefited from the excellent ratio of team members to participants.

The way in which the young people and young adults saw the team members as role models was also pivotal. Since a large portion of the team members already had experience of dealing with disabled people, this gave both the other members and the participants themselves a sense of normalcy in daily life and allowed them to handle unusual situations as if they were normal. The entire group developed a particularly strong bond. In this inclusive setting, common ground was discovered, reservations were overcome and barriers broken down. Another success of the inclusive approach was that it allowed many participants to re-evaluate how they came across to others, which is always central to youth work. For example, seeing disabled people singing their hearts out, visibly having fun even though they may be totally out of tune, can make it much easier for people who always worry about how they appear to others to relax and build some self-esteem. For me, watching the participants bonding and gaining more respect and consideration for others is the biggest advantage of an inclusive approach.

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