Photo: Ms Maria Budzynska (left), translator Mr Pavel, and the theatre therapy pupils (SHAKER visit to Lublin, Poland (2021))
It is Tuesday afternoon when I find myself face to face with the passionate theatre therapist Ms Maria Budzynska in Lublin, Poland. It’s the second of three study visits that day in the international SHAKER project, and the first live intercultural exchange. Also, my first international work trip ever. It has been a year and a half in the making, and most participants have only met this morning. Navigating the language barrier still takes some getting used to, as conversation flows in five different languages, only one of which we share.
Ms Maria introduces her pupils, some of whom have been under her tutelage for the better part of three decades. They touch her arm for support as they share something about themselves and their favourite play they’ve starred in: beautiful productions about what it means to have a mental disability in Polish society, about dreams for the future or big themes like exploring your sexuality. Theatre therapy has helped some to learn how to speak, some to gain a lot more independence; and all the pleasure of expression, belonging, making a valuable and appreciated contribution to their community. A few pupils get a little shy and tongue tied. No problem, where necessary Ms Maria ‘translates’ their message, which is in turn translated by Pavel, a former English teacher so we visitors too, can understand. I feel in awe of this life’s work I am witnessing.
The SHAKER project is aimed at the exploration of problems with and the exchange of solutions to increase the attractiveness of the health and social care fields. All four participating regions* struggle with increasing pressure on the health and social care systems (for example due to ageing societies), and a decreasing number of interested students and medical and social care providers. Fewer future Ms Marias, or Mr Jaceks, or Ms Dorotas or any of the others playing such a pivotal role in the lives of handicapped people, elderly people in nursing homes, disadvantaged youths trying to find their way in life.
Health and social care jobs at the practical VET level seem to suffer from a bad rep: low regard, low salary, hard work and long hours, little room for professional growth beyond a certain point. And so fewer and fewer students are interested in pursuing care giving careers, and fewer workers are willing to stay within the profession. Or they move to other regions or countries, where prospects might be better. Despite high demand for qualified staff and job safety, enrollment in the VET schools has been so low entire education tracks have been shut down. This to the great regret and sorrow of the headmasters and teachers; all heavily involved in local social and care programmes and activities. And to the dismay of the communities and regions that are directly affected by this.
Learning from each other
These issues are shared in some way, shape or form by all regions and schools participating in SHAKER. By discussing ways to deal with them, we can build upon each other’s knowledge and experience. Maybe a Polish, French or Czech solution can be made applicable to the Gelderland situation too, or the other way around; the four regions have very different fields of influence, and the schools have varying degrees of autonomy.
Ms Maria, in her white flowing blouse and with the fiery red hair, has made a lasting impression. We need her and many more people like her to keep our communities connected, inclusive and moving forward with care and understanding. I hope the SHAKER project will be a small way to contribute to that.
* Participating regions are: the Polish region of Lubelskie, the French Grand Est region, the Czech Moravian-Silesian region and the Dutch province of Gelderland.
Written by: Shosha Niesen (Programme of Education & Labour Market, Province of Gelderland)