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An afternoon volunteering at La Castalie, the educational medical centre in Monthey for people with mental and physical challenges, isn’t for everyone.
But, says Spanish teacher Miss Mila Lopez Sancho, for those who take part, it can be a very special and worthwhile experience. “The first visit can actually be quite eyeopening,” she says. “The students are full of questions: one girl asked me how she would communicate if the residents didn’t speak French. I pointed out that many of them couldn’t speak at all. There are many other ways to interact apart from speech.”
Disability is an issue that is close to Miss Lopez Sancho’s heart. “My younger brother is disabled so I grew up highly sensitive to the challenges he faced in society,” she says. “I am always keen to help others learn about the difficulties faced by people who are less able.”
Klara Krüger (Clairmont, Year 10) had a similar experience. “Growing up, one of my sister’s friends was autistic and we had another family friend with Down’s syndrome, so I was quite comfortable around people with disabilities,” she says. “I thought by going to La Castalie with my friends I could make it easier for them.” But there were still surprises in store. “On my first visit I went to the woodworking class,” says Klara. “There were six people in wheelchairs, all working at their specially adapted machines. I was amazed at their level of skill and the technology they used.”
One of Klara’s friends admitted that she was concerned that if she smiled the residents would think she was laughing at them. “I explained that they would be so pleased to see us that they would be the first to smile – she didn’t have to worry,” Klara says.
Now, two years after she first approached the centre with her suggestion of monthly visits from Aiglon students, Miss Lopez Sancho’s group has grown from four to more than 20 girls and boys. “One day I was boarding the bus to La Castalie with a group of students when we were approached by a young Kenyan,” she recalls. “When I told him where we were going, he asked if the residents liked music. He came with us and we ended up singing and dancing all afternoon. Another time, I watched a student explaining colours to a blind resident. Although he couldn’t see, my student thought he would be interested in knowing what colours he was using. And he was!”
Klara acknowledges that the visits can be pretty intense. “You are there with five or six people whom you need to entertain and make feel cherished,” she says. “But when I get back to school after an afternoon at La Castalie I feel so full of joy and love – I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
This article was first published in Issue 10 of the Aiglon Magazine.
Words: Sarah Woodward
Photography: Joe McGorty