What I Learned About Ability...
What I Learned About Ability from Spending a Year Living With People with Disabilities
By Anna Falch
On August 24, 2015, I boarded an airplane in Frankfurt, Germany, as an excited—but nervous—service year volunteer. I was bound for Plowshare Farm in southern New Hampshire, more than 3700 miles from home. Plowshare Farm is part of the Camphill movement of communities where people with and without special needs live and work together.
My brother, Toby, had already spent a year at Plowshare Farm, so I knew a little about what to expect from him. I had few personal experiences with people with disabilities. Looking back, I think that was good. My mind wasn’t primed with prejudices about autism or Down syndrome. When I arrived, I simply found a place where everyone was who they were, and was appreciated for it.
We were seven volunteers coming to Plowshare Farm that year and we all had different tasks. Working with people of all abilities, I had daily responsibilities, like caring for farm animals, harvesting vegetables, tending the fields, cleaning the barn, splitting and stacking firewood, and helping prepare community lunches using fresh produce from the gardens.
Another important part of each day was sharing chores and social time in our houses. Thirteen of us lived together in Artaban House. Some had disabilities, and some did not. My housemates and I took turns preparing meals, baking, and cleaning. Each of us had something to do and contribute. We also did creative projects, like handicraft work for Halloween or Mardi Gras, choreographing dances, and painting. We spent quality time together.
I learned many things at Plowshare Farm—some I expected (learning the basics of agriculture, improving my English) and others were a surprise (learning how to brush somebody else’s teeth, and how to troubleshoot the car we used to get around). And I learned a lot about what ability is and how to understand, accept, and support others.
When I first arrived at Plowshare Farm, my instincts were to jump in and help when I saw somebody with special needs struggling. For example, one of my housemates had the job of setting the breakfast table. Some mornings, he took longer or things got in his way and he became frustrated. I learned to watch closely. There were times when I should and could help, and others when it was better to wait.
I had to find the right balance of lifting up without carrying—to give as much support as someone needed but not so much that it prevented them from using their abilities to their full potential. At the same time, I learned the importance of taking care of myself. I learned to ask for and accept help when I needed it.
I learned to look for the strengths and talents that can go unnoticed. I discovered that all of my housemates had special gifts and sharing them brought joy. None of us came to Plowshare Farm to be taken care of. We chose to live there because it made life better for ourselves and others.
I remember one day, in particular, when I was sad. It was my free day. I went upstairs to the living room and found one of my friends sitting on the couch. She needs help with tasks most people take for granted, like chores and personal hygiene. But her spirit is remarkable—kind, loving, and open—in a way that’s not very common in our society.
I sat down next to her, laid my head on her shoulder, and told her, “I’m so sad.” I couldn’t have explained why. There were many worries in my head. But my explanation wasn’t necessary. She felt that my heart was heavy. She put her arm around me and said, “Don’t worry. I’m here for you,” and then gave me a kiss on my head.
It was one of the most touching moments I have ever experienced. She gave me stability—just by being there for me. I treasure this memory! It reminds me how rare and special compassion is. And it inspires me to always keep working on being present for others.
Almost three years after returning to Germany, I still think about my time at Plowshare Farm many days. My experiences there will always be part of me and influence how I meet others. They give me hope. In a world full of worries, it can be healing to see the ability in every person and to know that—by lifting each other—we can make a fulfilling life possible.
Camphill lifesharing communities provide a unique model of care for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, such as autism, Down syndrome, and others. To learn about volunteer opportunities at Camphill communities and the Camphill College Loan Support Program, open to eligible applicants, visit Camphill Association of North America’s website at www.camphill.org/clsp.