The impact of community: a personal perspective
News Our voices 30 May 2019
When I started at Room to Heal, I was struck by how much presence each person in the community seemed to have whilst the community as a whole seemed to have this palpable compassionate humanity of its own. As time has passed, I have come to gain some understanding on how community can form into such a healing force and in particular, how the Room to Heal community facilitates this.
This presence that I witnessed in members of the community varied for each person in that there seemed to be space in Room to Heal for people to allow the many sides of who they are to emerge and be welcomed. Members of the community were not first and foremost defined by being a vulnerable victim or service user.
Yes, people are suffering at Room to Heal. People who come to Room to Heal are often amongst the most vulnerable in society due to impact of surviving the worst of human cruelty and the many subsequent barriers they face in the UK to finding physical and psychological safety. In Room to Heal we bear witness to this suffering. This suffering has a place at the table – quite literally at times. For example; sometimes at the Tuesday lunch which we have after the two support groups occur, there is a sense that the other group, or the group that I co-facilitate has had to work through some difficult emotional material together. On those days, there are some heavy hearts at the lunch table taking solace in the nourishing meal. Equally, there is just as much space and respect for the light, jovial hearts to have a place at the table with laughter and playfulness frequently heard around the creation and enjoyment of meals, in the garden and the various workshops, outings and retreats.
For me, the most striking aspect of people’s presence at Room to Heal is the power that people in the community seem to embody. As mentioned, people here are not defined by their suffering, but perhaps more so by the side of themselves that is someone who has and continues to resist oppression. I intuitively felt this when I began at Room to Heal. Since then, time and time again, this view has been validated by the direction of growth I have observed in people, comments made by community members and in a more objective manner, through findings in the annual evaluation.
Recently, a community member shared that when they began in Room to Heal, they felt powerless and overwhelmed by the extreme lack of liberty at seemingly every angle whilst waiting in uncertainty during their asylum claim. Now, as part of this collective and the community, they feel much stronger. They feel empowered to stand their ground and communicate with more confidence to advocate for adequate housing and progress in their asylum claim. Another time, a community member who was collaborating with Room to Heal on organisational developments told me how much it meant that we needed them. They said in their country they were invisible; they did not have the right to vote. Now, in Room to Heal, their voice matters and can make a difference. Since then this member continues to report how their confidence grows helping them to seek volunteering opportunities and continue their development in preparation for receiving leave to remain and gaining work.
There is already a lot of evidence for the therapeutic benefits of supporting people beyond their individual psychological needs to help people to reduce social isolation, develop supportive relationships and to reduce situational barriers to wellbeing. Our holistic model of work via therapeutic and casework support facilitates change in these areas. In my personal experience at Room to Heal, I can see how incredibly powerful this holistic and community model of working is for people who have survived human rights abuse. A ‘community’ has the power to persecute, this can lead to immense suffering and loss that brings people to the UK and to our organisation. At Room to Heal, we offer an alternative community, that can liberate people from suffering through fostering a safe environment to find and be oneself.
We recognise how difficult developing trusting relationships can be for people who have experienced trauma due to interpersonal violence and / or oppression. Therefore, our structure is designed to help people through this. We provide a period of one to one therapy before joining the group and the community to help people to find some grounding and safety which can help the development of trust in others. In the group we have an open-ended format to meet each person’s individual and changing needs – they have agency to leave the group when they are ready. We work with them to consider when this may be. Subsequently they can continue to attend other community activities, including twice weekly gatherings, gardening, cooking, day trips around London and longer retreats in the countryside. My personal observation is that the continuation of long-term community members at meals and events helps to keep the special culture of Room to Heal alive. I see this culture as one of respect, mutuality, solidarity and compassion which each community member has a role and responsibility in maintaining.
In my role as a staff member, I see how the team also plays an essential part in maintaining the healing culture of the community. As individual and group relationships are a key ingredient, the staff members are dedicated to developing relationships with people across the community and with each other. To do this well, there are systems in place to support staff to reflect on how they are working alongside each community member and on how to manage relationship boundaries. I continue to be impressed by how thoughtful and respectful that staff are in these meetings for all in the community.
As I sadly prepare to leave my role at Room to Heal, I am noticing a challenge with this way of working. I have invested in the relationships I have made at Room to Heal. I became part of the community and gained the sense of belonging and solidarity that is fostered here. Furthermore, I have gained a great deal of personal meaning through walking alongside individuals in the community through the ups and downs of creating a new life in the UK. All of this makes it a very difficult place to leave. It also makes it easy for me to reflect on the incredible achievement of each person in the community for having the courage and dedication to open up and grow personally and as a whole in the community.
By Theresa Ryan-Enright, Therapist, Room to Heal, May 2019