Geraldine would often tell me about her trips to Belarus and Romania to carry out voluntary work. She spoke with such passion, brimming about the work she helped to carry out and the wonderful people she met. I would always listen on with envy as she recounted her tales from overseas. Then in May 2019, Geraldine returned with new stories from Romania.
We were both working in the social care sector in Scotland at the time, running activity groups for adults with additional support needs. We loved our jobs. There was a tremendously gratifying feeling about making a little difference to a person’s life, and we were fortunate enough to do it every day. But for all the joy brought into our lives by the people we supported, there was shadow over us.
In the preceding months, Geraldine and myself had gone through individual personal turmoil in our home lives, and despite the rewarding nature of our work, we both felt disenchanted at some of the aspects in the UK social care system. Geraldine had found that her voluntary work had helped to provide much needed respite in the past and promptly signed up for a trip with Stand International, destined for Romania and a charity called Nightingales.
Over the course of two weeks, I received daily messages, often hastily written as she threw herself headlong into the work being carried out, the subtext of her messages bursting with praise for the people running the charity. The list of superlatives used was endless. At the end of each day, I would be sent pictures of the charity
Over the course of two weeks, I could do nothing but watch on with jealousy as Geraldine took on a magical adventure over 3000km away.
I had arranged to pick Geraldine up from Glasgow airport on her return, but before she had even boarded the flight, I received a message.
I’m coming back here
We met at the pickup point at Glasgow Airport and for the full drive home, I was regaled by her tales for Nightingales. I shared in her stories about people I had never met, building a picture of them in my head, hearing Geraldine repeat her wish to return to visit the charity once more. I wished I could be part of these stories. I wanted to do what she had done.
Geraldine kept in touch with Ben, the project manager of the Nightingales project, exchanging messages and over a period of time, spoken with him about the possibility of returning. And most exciting for me, had arranged that I could also travel to the charity.
With our PVG’s, passports, flights, one small hand luggage and a single suitcase between the two of us, crammed full of donated football tops we had gathered, we set off for Romania in early February 2020
We arrived at the weekend and had some time to settle in and find our bearings before visiting Casa Fericirii on the Monday. I quickly realised why Geraldine spoke so fondly of a place she had only visited once before. As well as Ben and Luiza, I met the adults supported by the project for the first time. even with a language barrier, I was made to feel exceptionally welcome by the cheery group as they arrived at the project to complete their own daily tasks.
Ben took the time to show us about the place and tell us a little about the charity’s formation and purpose – an exercise for my purpose as Geraldine was already quite familiar with the charity.
In that short conversation, the stark realities facing many young people in South-East Romania really hit home. I had been aware of the situation before arriving, but something about being in that building made the truth much more real for me.
That’s the thing, sitting at home and hearing these stories, I would compartmentalise such grim truths. I could acknowledge and feel empathy for the plight but sitting in that building where work was being done to prevent it brought a whole new dimension to my own understanding. It was important to recognise the potential risk to those who came through the doors of Nightingales, because it is the difference in how a young person’s whole future can pan out.
On Geraldine’s previous visit, she had painted a beautiful mural in the room that housed their candle making social enterprise ‘Light for Night’, and because of her artistic prowess, we were tasked with a new mural in the halls. Painting the mural was fun, but in my mind, I wasn’t sure how vital such a task could be to volunteering. Geraldine did.
As we finished off the mural, the adults supported by the project gathered behind us to see the new artwork. If I had any doubt as to how art could be important to the project, they were quickly dispelled by the faces of the smiling onlookers. I saw joy and realised how powerful such an emotion can be to individual wellbeing.
Over the course of our time at Nightingales, we painted a few more murals, tried out hand at making candles, designed a board game with the girls from the coffee shop, joined in a training session with the men’s football team and were invited to run some of the activity groups for children, using skills we utilised in our daily work back home.
One night back at our hotel, we had been having dinner and talking about what made Nightingales feel like such a wonderous place. The answer was simple.
There was care.
Coming from the care sector it is an easy thing to say, but at Nightingales people were not just numbers or statistics, they were individuals with views, families, futures and possibilities. People treated by their abilities and strengths. The vulnerabilities were not forgotten, but they were not used as the guiding principle – the focus on their future was that of the most positive outcome.
Casa Fericirii – home of happiness. After two weeks in Romania, I realised this was not a slogan: it was a truth.
By the time we had returned home, the global situation due to Covid had escalated, but our work with Nightingales had not yet finished. As national lockdown restrictions began to ease in Scotland, we joined in with the charity’s Virtual Overland appeal, walking from Glasgow to Edinburgh, a total of 44 miles in 17 hours. Alongside the charity and a raft of other volunteers, enough money was raised to provide a new boiler system for the adults supported by the charity. Our hope of returning to Romania had been waylaid by events out with our control, but to see how so many people across the world could come together for this cause in the middle of a global pandemic, served only to strengthen our attachment to this amazing group of people.
We arrived hoping to offer a little help to a great cause. What transpired was that our experience with Nightingale helped the both of us more. Our faith in other people had been restored by the kindness and dedication we witnessed. When the world has returned to a little normality, we hope to return. There is something special about Nightingales that neither of us have experienced to such a degree in any previous ventures. Something we just couldn’t leave behind.
Nightingales isn’t just a charity. It’s a family.
A family we will forever be a part of.