Story by CVT volunteer Patricia Busse
Clients at Chicago’s Heartland Alliance Marjorie Kovler Center have found themselves chopping onions, digging in a garden and even beekeeping as part of therapy sessions coordinated by Occupational Therapist Mary Black.
Black started as a volunteer at the Kovler Center in 1990 after reading an article in a newsletter for occupational therapists seeking volunteers to work with survivors of torture.
Her first assignment was to work with about a dozen children from Guatemala.
She was unsure how to approach the challenge at first, so she started by asking the kids and teens questions about their lives back home—especially how they played. They missed flying kites, she learned, so at the next group meeting they constructed and flew kites together. They were not the standard kites she was familiar with in the United States, she said, but miniature versions of “barriletes,” the huge traditional window pane colored kites flown over cemeteries on All Saints Day.
“I did not expect that a seemingly mundane exploration of play and constructing kites could lead to such insight into trauma, cultural traditions, safety, collaboration and community,” Black describes in a chapter of Occupational Therapies Without Borders Volume 2. (Elsevier Ltd. 2011)
Taking a cue from clients
That initial experience of learning from clients laid the groundwork for Black’s future work at the center, where she joined the staff about five years later.
“Getting information from clients has really shaped the direction of programming,” she said. “Finding out who someone was in their home country helps to guide us in restoring some dignity that has been lost.”
They have found that projects which are client-directed are more sustainable. One longtime program has been the international cooking group.
The cooking starts around 5:30 p.m.every other Friday in the Kovler kitchen. Typically, one client volunteers to prepare a menu based on traditional foods from their home country, and then the group works together to prepare the meal, visiting while they work. In the summer season, many of the ingredients come from the kitchen garden in back of the center, or nearby community garden where the Kovler Center maintains vegetable plots.
They make the meals from scratch and, since clients come when they can, they often don’t eat until 8:30 or 9 p.m., Black said. When we sit down to eat, the cook talks about the food, culture and mealtime traditions in their home country.
“People might dance, sing. It’s very rich,” she said. “There’s a lot of joy expressed there, and pride.”
A sense of contributing
The meals offer a needed break for clients who have a lot of stressors on their minds, like asylum cases, financial struggles or unemployment, she said, but they do more than that. They offer a sense of community at a point when many clients still feel like outsiders much of the time, and an opportunity to contribute to something that others can enjoy.
Working in the community garden also gives clients that sense of contributing. Not only does the garden provide produce for clients and the meals, but it provides the surrounding neighborhood with needed green space in a spot that was once known for gang activity and considered dangerous.
“That’s the beauty of doing community-based work, is that there’s a real physical presence and something beautiful is being created and people have fresh food … it’s offering something to the community that wasn’t there before,” she said. “It’s not just altruistic, it’s how our clients are shaping opportunities that also impact rebuilding the community.”