Occupational Therapy students from NUI Galway visited Vic recently. Laura Reilly reports…
Promoting participation through meaningful occupation: an international collaboration to support community development in occupational therapy
2013 marks the European year of citizens – a time where Europe as an institution, and a society places focus on the rights that come with EU citizenship. Such rights include the right to travel within the EU, the right to seek work, the right to study and the right to equal treatment for all citizens. While all of these rights are enshrined in legislation and policy for many Europeans, these rights may be compromised as a result of health, social, ecomonic and political factors which limit their ability to participate as active citizens in Europe.
For occupational therapists, enabling people to realise all of their rights as citizens is an important goal. Increasingly, as occupational therapists recognise concepts such as occupational justice, occupational alientation and occuaptional apartheid, the need for practitioners to respond to the culutral, social and political context in which health and participation occurs is becoming more appartent. For occupational therapy educators, this shift in practice means that students must be provided with educational opportunities to collaborate with diverse communities to address social political and economic aspects of occupational participation.
At the National University of Ireland, Galway occupational therapy students develop these competencies through participation in service learning. Service learning is a form of experiential learning during which students collaborate with community groups to apply their academic learning in order to address community needs. Service learning has an explict aim of developing awareness and skills in democracy and citizenship among students and in promoting sustainable solutions to community challenges. Since 2006 the Discipline of Occupational Therapy has run a service learning programme within the third year of the occupational therapy programme, collaborating with over 50 community organisations and providing learning opportunities for over 150 students.
In 2012/2013 as part of this work the Discipline of Occupational Therapy has embarked upon the development of a community garden in collaboration with five local organisations representing people with disabilities and people who are traditionally excluded from mainstream society. The overall vision for the project is to “create a space which will facilitate those involved coming together as a community. By developing a sustainable garden we aim to promote well-being through engagement in purposeful activity.” (3rd year Occupational Therapy Students, NUIG, 2012)
The therapeutic benefits of gardening for people with mental illness and physical disabilities have long been recognised by occupational therapists and many therapists will be familiar with the use of gardening as part of professional practice. What makes this project unique is its stated aim to develop collaborations between existing community groups so that the garden becomes an inclusive space for all citizens. In addition the garden will integrate health, education, research and the promotion of citizenship.
Planning for the project in Galway began in August 2012 and has been led by the third year undergraduate students. As part of the project development we sought to identify examples of similar projects in other countries and made contact with The Project Miquel MartÍ i Pol which is a collaboration between the Discipline of Occupational Therapy, University of Vic, Spain, Caritas Arxiprestal, Girbau Rotary, la Caxia Foundation, and Vic City Council.
The Project Miquel MartÍ i Pol was established by Dr. Salvador Simo in 2005. It draws inspiration from the work of the Spainsh poet Miquel MartÍ i Pol who wrote; “Beauty is your heritage/ but you prefer / the sady and routine laziness/ of a cardboard box… Let me say that it’s time to love/ it’s time to believe in miracles / some day/ there will be flowers in the garden and wind in the trees…Those, who for many years lived far away from town/ will be called to return.”
Guided by this vision, occupational therapy students and citizens, who for many years had been excluded from society because of stigma, created a garden on the grounds of the University. The creation of the garden took a period of 18 months and today students and people with disabilities work side by side to develop and maintain the garden. In Febraury 2013 a group of 15 occupational therapy students from NUI Galway together with two members of staff had the opportunity to visit this garden and to meet with Dr. Simo and his team of gardeners.
The visit consisted of workshops of both a practical and theoretical basis. In the mid-morning sun of Vic we discovered that the garden was not only given meaning by the people who pruned the bushes, and planted the bulbs but the plants themselves each harboured their own individual meaning. The first tree planted in this Vic garden made a lasting impression on the group. This tree called ginkgo biloba symbolized hope, survival and perseverance qualities which will be essential to the success of our project in Ireland.
Upon reflection on this trip a definitive take home message emerged within the group. The power of meaningful occupation, and how being a part of such a project can empower a person to reach their full potential – in body and in mind. While we have heard of Mary Reilly’s comments in books and lectures that ‘Man through the use of their hands, as they are energised by mind and will, can influence the state of his own will’ this trip to Vic allowed us to witness it in practice.
We would like to thank the following for making this trip possible: Lorraine McIlrath from Community Knowledge initiative (CKI) at NUI Galway and Bernadette Linnane and Kevin Burke from Bank of Ireland at NUI Galway for their kind sponsorship; Margaret McGrath and Hazel Killeen, Occupational Therapy Lecturers at NUI Galway; Salvador Simo Algdo and the Occupational Therapy students at the University of Vic, Spain.