Castlebar and Skibbereen Youth groups with accompanying teachers Lisa Burke, St Gerald’s, Castlebar and Rosie O’Brien, SCS and Changing Minds facilitator, Susan O’Regan.
In March, four youth groups, two Romanian, two Irish (from Skibbereen and Castlebar), with accompanying teachers and youth workers, met for the first time in Techrighiol, Romania. The trip was organised by Changing Minds, a project, led by the Aurelia Trust, aimed at using technology to raise awareness on the issue of disability and on reducing negative stereotypes towards people from less developed countries.
The Aurelia Trust works in Romania with abandoned children and young adults who have been institutionalised since birth, many of whom grew up in the brutal orphanage system during the Ceaușescu regime.
The week turned out to be a life-changing experience for many. This entire project was led by a young man, Niall Seymour from Skibbereen and an inter-generational team, inspiring others to realise their potential and to know that anything is possible if you believe in something enough.
There was 38 people in total travelling through Romania, including three observing Lithuanian teachers and a three-person documentary crew. Each member of the team participated in each activity with an open heart and mind during what turned out to be an action-packed week. A core part of the week was paying visits to some of the homes run by the Aurelia Trust, an experience that people tend not to forget. As 16-year-old Oisin Browne from Castlebar puts it in his blog post; “The group homes and the pilot centre, while I could never unsee the bad side of these places, it’s the amazing people I’ve met along the way that I’ll remember the most. In the week that I spent in Romania, I saw many places and met lots of people. Nowhere is perfect. Ireland isn’t and neither is Romania. However, in all bad there is good. The beauty of some places is not in the scenery, or the architecture. It’s in the people, and in Romania the people are the most selfless and genuine people I’ve ever met”.
Described as Laurentiu Petrea, (A.T.I.C. Romania) as an “inspiring” week for his youth group, it was clear that the week was a very deep and moving learning experience for all concerned, especially the activities involving the clients of the Aurelia Trust homes. Skibbereen transition year student Poppy Colligan describes her feelings on her first day; “After we ate, the clients came in and performed a song and dance for us. I felt so emotional while they were dancing and singing because the smallest thing makes them so happy and back at home people complain about the smallest things (myself included) when they really have no idea what it’s like to have nothing”.
The activities very noticeably fostered a sense of compassion and empathy, as well as a sense of gratitude in the participating young people. According to Ronan Reilly from Castlebar, “Romania has opened my eyes to how people live in other countries. Poverty is side by side with wealth and ultimately it makes me appreciate the Emerald Isle much more! It is great to see that all the clients are well looked after and live simple but safe and happy lives”.
The culmination of the week with a conference led by young people was such a wonderful finale and again a positive promotion of both cultures, as well as highlighting a deeper understanding of Romanian history and culture and of disability in both countries. This learning activity as a whole was an ambitious model but one that was planned carefully and thoughtfully and has already had an incredible impact that we are confident will be shared far and wide.
“The nature of my job has given me frequent interaction with people of all ages, but I have not found in one place so many nice, good, willing people to help. (Andra Simion, Aurelia Trust Psychologist, Constanta)
A young Romanian student from Galati, Mihai when asked by Changing Minds facilitator, Susan O’Regan how he was finding the week halfway through, described it as “kind of perfect” which sums the week up very nicely.
The entire week well surpassed Changing Minds organisers expectations. The careful planning of a gradual introduction to group homes and building up the young peoples direct experience of working with people with disabilities over the week really assisted in breaking down any fear or barriers to disability. Undertaking many cultural activities together really helped integrate Irish and Romanian, disability and ‘ability’ and the sincere welcome the group received everywhere really assisted in positively promoting Romanian culture.
The direct experience of working with disability in Romania for both Romanian young people and Irish young people was extremely powerful for all involved. It seemed to ignite a heart-felt response and passion in the group, now even more determined to change minds via digital media activities. “Making a difference, mattering, when we appreciate it, it’s the best feeling. Maybe it’s just me, but putting a smile on someone else’s face is the most rewarding thing you can ever do” Oisin Browne, Castlebar.
To get a sense of what these young people have experienced and achieved you need to have a look at their website Changingminds.eu. On this website you will read blog posts and watch videos that capture the essence of this transnational partnership so well. The whole project is being recorded and made into a documentary by Skibbereen Based Storicreative. The project is a Strategic Partnership funded under Erasmus+ through Leargas, the national organisation responsible for assessing grant applications. Organisations from both Ireland and Romania are involved – the Irish side includes the Aurelia Trust, Skibbereen Community School, the Ludgate Hub, St Gerald’s College, Castlebar and the Romanian side is made up of A.T.I.C. – a youth organisation with extensive Erasmus+ experience, and D.G.A.S.P.C. – a government department in Constanta, Romania with responsibility for people with disabilities.
The next part of this 13-month project involves a visit of youth leaders representing each partner to Skibbereen in May and a second transnational week long visit of the two Romanian youth groups to Ireland, where they will be welcomed in both Castlebar and Skibbereen.