Learning how to play with Lego

20th September 1996 at 01:00
For the past four years, Judith Campbell has caught a plane to Romania as soon as the summer term is over. But she doesn't pack sun cream or a bikini.

Judith, who teaches at The Mount, a Quaker school for girls in York, heads for the small town of Siret, on the border with Ukraine. Accompanied by four sixth-form volunteers and a colleague, Judith spends two weeks in the local hospital-cum-orphanage teaching children something they've never experienced before: how to play.

Under the auspices of the British charity Jacob's Well, Judith and her entourage fly to Bucharest (until this year, she paid her own fares). Then they travel 10 hours by train, followed by a "hair-raising" 40 minutes by taxi.

"When I first went in 1992, it turned my world upside down," she recalls. "For the first time, I saw real poverty and lived among people who didn't have enough to eat, who had no running water or even a doctor in the town." She also experienced the shock of entering one of Romania's notorious "orphanages", or in the official parlance a neuro-psychiatric children's hospital, where mentally and physically handicapped and abandoned youngsters spend their lives in filthy conditions.

This year, to help prepare her four young volunteers, she arranged a visit to a special school in York, for children with mental and physical disabilities. In reality, the similarities were minimal. "For the girls, going into the hospital is shocking, no matter how prepared you are."

So, too, but perhaps on a different level, is the first glimpse they have of their lodgings. Jacob's Well arranges for volunteers to be put up in local houses, for which the hosts receive money. Judith has stayed every year with Silvi, a 62-year-old peasant woman who, as peasants are wont, keeps turkeys, geese and chickens in the kitchen at night. Running water is from a standpipe in the road, four hours a day.

While she has become used to the privations of life with Silvi, working with the children is always emotionally draining. The hospital houses "children" from infancy through to their middle 20s. Some are emotionally and behaviourally disturbed, some have physical disabilities, most have become institutionalised into inert, maladjusted dependency. Many of the teenagers are doubly incontinent.

While the hospital is resourced through the Challenge Anneka! TV programme as well as through Jacob's Well, the children have no experience of play. They've never been shown before what to do with the Lego, the building blocks, the dolls and crayons that have been sent from England. So the York brigade sit down to talk and play, undressing, dressing and washing the dolls. "We do this nurturing kind of play, knowing that they'll never have children of their own," says Judith. Team games are out of the question. "They have no concept of how to play with each other or how to co-operate."

Judith has been impressed by the effects that the trips have had on her young volunteers from The Mount. One girl in the first group she took went back during her year off and is now nearly fluent in Romanian. Two others have said they would like to do the same.

Whoever does, or does not, decide to go back, the school as a whole has an on-going connection with Siret, regularly sending shoe boxes stuffed with goods and letters.

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