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Volunteering in Ireland

Camphill Community Supports Students with Special Needs

I had come to Dunshane Camphill Community at the invitation of a close friend who had encouraged me to spend a month working in its garden before my return trip home. For the past seven months I’d been volunteering at an English university, living in the dorms, and lazily sharing in much of the chaos collegiate life entails. By the time I left England I was burnt out and had become a bit jaded about volunteering. But my friend’s animated description of the place where he’d been living and working for over a year captured my imagination; besides, I’d always wanted to see Ireland.

The community lies just south of Dublin and a brief drive from the spectacular Wicklow Mountains. The property houses a life-skills training center for adolescents and adults, aged 15 to 22 years, who have developmental disabilities. Its five houses and numerous workshops accommodate a total of 60 people, 40 of whom are volunteers and staff.

The setting is storybook beautiful. Situated amid the lush, gently rolling green fields of Irish horse country, Dunshane House and Garden Cottage overlook a central courtyard and common hall; the remaining three houses are set around the grounds of what was once a stud farm. A working farm and a biodynamic garden supply year-round organic crops, which more than satisfy the community’s needs. Milk and cheese are processed by an onsite dairy. There is also a bakery, pottery, basketry, and candle workshop where goods are made by students and co-workers for community use as well as for trade with the surrounding county. A large kitchen in each house provides daily meals as well as an additional place for students to learn through hands-on experience.

Dunshane Camphill Community was initially designed by Dr. Karl Konig, a Viennese pediatrician. He, his wife, and a small group of like-minded individuals established the first such society for children with special needs near Aberdeen, Scotland once they fled the Nazi invasion of Austria in 1940. Inspired by the ideas of philosopher Rudolph Steiner, Konig strove to create an environment in which, as he put it, “helper and helped can live in an atmosphere of mutual respect and learning.” He viewed disabilities not as problems to be overcome but as opportunities for mutual learning. Every person involved in Camphill contributes something. Whether through teaching, working in the garden or workshops, cooking, or helping with chores, each person gives however they can, wherever they’re needed, according to their abilities.

Konig made an example of his original community and managed to create an entire movement. Currently there are more than 90 Camphill communities in 20 countries around the world, each tailored to meet a specific need. From cities, to suburbs, to idyllic rural areas like the community at Dunshane, the settings are as diverse as their inhabitants.

Workers are provided with everything they need. They are given a private room, three meals daily, and a small stipend that covers reasonable expenses during the stay. In return for the hospitality of the community, volunteers are expected to devote at least six months to a year of service and to fill many different positions. A few of these include teaching, supporting students’ participation in the daily life of the community, and completing everyday tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and working in the garden, farm, or a workshop. Training is provided at every step of the way, and senior volunteers and staff members are always eager to lend a hand.

While the work at Camphill is rewarding, it can be taxing as well. Long days are ordinary and personal time is scarce. But despite the extended hours in the company of others, or perhaps because of them, the close relationships fostered within the community are genuine. In the presence of such sincerity, sharing, and kindness my lackluster attitude seemed to dissolve.

For more information on volunteering at a Camphill Community in the U.K. and for links to Camphill communities worldwide, visit the Camphill Great Britain website at www.camphill.org.uk or email info@camphill.org.uk.

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