Beating a new path to health


Self-sustaining communities of disabled and able-bodied people offer a fresh approach to mental and physical wellbeing. What's the secret of their success?

September 25th is the centenary of the birth of Karl König. The life, work and vision of this Austrian doctor has had a huge impact on the lives of thousands of people with disabilities and their co-workers who live in over 90 Camphill Communities in Ireland, Britain and throughout the world.

Karl König's idea to establish self-sustaining communities in which children and/or adults with intellectual and physical disabilities live and work alongside other individuals who choose to live, work and bring up their families within such communities was both visionary and radical in the 1930s. Now, more than 70 years later, some of the ideas of so-called "curative education" are slowly becoming more integrated into mainstream thinking on the special educative needs of people with disabilities, yet the model of a community of people with and without disabilities living full time together remains radical.

In Ireland, there are 10 Camphill Communities. Each community is run independently, following the founding principles of Karl König. Known as the three essentials, they are "regard for the spiritual nature of one's fellow man, the endeavour of one's inner development and the establishment of a true community".

"One of the dilemmas of childcare is that when children are 'in care', they experience the absence of the family." says Patrick Lydon, farmer and former journalist from the US who is one of the founders of the Ballytobin Camphill Community in Co Kilkenny. "But, here [in Ballytobin Camphill Community\] people are living and working together. They don't drive in and work for eight hours a day and then leave. Every person is expected to have their own relationship with the children with special needs. The idea is to create an environment in which children are 'at home'."

Lydon and his Scottish wife Gladys, a teacher of children with aphasia (partial or total loss of speech and/or understanding due to brain damage) brought up their four children - Dominic, Colum, Sarah and Ruth - within the Camphill Community in Ballytobin.

Colum Lydon says that, for him, growing up within the Camphill Community was normal. "I went to national school in Dunnamaggan [the local school\]. Then I went to Kilkenny College and I have been very involved in the GAA. The biggest question friends asked was not how do you live with 20 other people in your house - nine of whom have special needs - but how do you live without television. I certainly met more interesting people and had more life experience [as a child\]. And, growing up with children with special needs, you have to accept people for what they are."

The Watergarden coffee shop in Thomastown, Co Kilkenny is run by another Camphill Community. Merlin Brockette from Texas has been a co-worker there for the past eight years. Previously, he also worked in Camphill Communities in Scotland, South Africa and Switzerland.

"I was always interested in community living. My father had an eight-to-five job in education, and I thought, I'm not going to have a job like that. So I got a 24-hour job," he laughs.

"No, it's not really a job at all, it's an alternative lifestyle," continues Brockette, who previously worked on an oil rig before training to be a bakery teacher within the Camphill Community.

Brockette says that, in Ireland, Camphill Communities are perhaps less insular than in some other countries. "Outside of Ireland, most of the communities I've lived in and visited were very insular - based on early models of Camphill, in which there was a tendency to look inwards because, when they were established, they were real alternatives.

"However, in Ireland, there are families who don't want their children to live in a Camphill Community but to work within one, and we accommodate that. Also, in the Thomastown area, for example, we have three residential houses which are several miles apart, and we know our neighbours and everyone knows us. I haven't had that experience in other countries."

THE historical account of the Camphill Communities, A Candle on the Hill - Images of Camphill Life (Floris Books, Anthroposophic Press, 1991) includes an essay written by Karl König in 1965 clearly explaining the three essential principles which continue to guide all those who live within Camphill Communities today.

The emphasis on the spiritual nature of the child with special needs is fundamental to the Camphill approach. König wrote, "Like any other human being who has to battle with various diseases, the handicapped child also has to learn how to live with his ailment or to conquer it. As parents and teachers, our task is to appeal to the eternal being of the child, to make him recognise his destiny. However hidden his individuality may be and however covered up by the many layers of inability, lameness and uncontrolled emotions - we must try to break through these sheaths and reach the holy of holies in every man: the seat of his spiritual entity."

Greatly influenced by the Austrian philosopher, Rudolf Steiner, König also sought to place creativity at the centre of the educational process. König suggested creating a creative working environment: without noise and hurry, restlessness and quarrel and without "television, radio, drink, chatter, gossip and the many things that make life so difficult and unbearable". König also stressed that a sphere of privacy be provided for each person within the working community. Day-to-day funding for Camphill Communities are acquired through various means, including sale of produce, fundraising activities and grants.

In the Camphill Communities, no co-worker - long term resident or short term volunteer - receives a wage or salary. This, according to König, was not an economic arrangement but part of the social endeavour to create the right environment. "We are convinced that we could not do our work in the same manner if we were employees and received a salary, because we know that work which is paid has lost its social value . . . Wages create a barrier between the one who receives and the one who pays," wrote König in his essay on the three essentials of Camphill Communities.

On visiting the Camphill Community in Ballytobin, Co Kilkenny last week, the warmth, friendliness and openness which permeated the contact between community members and towards visitors was striking.

The respect for and nurturing of the creative, spiritual and social nature of all human beings was also evident in the naturalistic way in which the various houses, farm buildings and the beautiful, newly built concert hall were integrated into the surrounding gardens and farm.

The new concert hall at the Camphill Community in Ballytobin, Co Kilkenny will be opened by Sister Stanislaus Kennedy at 1.30 p.m. on September 22nd, followed at 2 p.m. by an open day at Ballytobin. The Centenary of Karl König's birth will be celebrated at a regional gathering of the Camphill Communities of Ireland in Ballytobin on September 25th. More details from tel: 056-25114.

A concert to celebrate the Karl König's birth centenary will take place in the NCH, Earlsfort Terrace, Dublin on Nov 19th at 7.30 p.m. Admission €15. Tel: 056-24690.

A conference, "Building Inclusive Communities" is planned for New Lanark, Ayrshire, Scotland, May 8th-11th, 2003. Tel: 0044-1653-694197.