Connecting people

One of the cleverest brand slogans must surely be that of Nokia, Connecting People. So often, other groups and organisations trying to define and distil their vision and mission statement into a pithy phrase find themselves coming up with exactly these two words.  Well, just to reassure you, this column is not an advert for Nokia, and as it happens, I don’t even have a mobile phone!

What I would like to do is to reflect on how a residential community like Mill Grove, having lived in the same neighbourhood for 106 years with the same biological family at its heart, finds itself connecting people across time and space.  So let me give you three examples from the past two or three weeks.

Trans-Atlantic Links

It was Thursday morning at Mill Grove: this is the day each week when we try to be at home right through, so that neighbours can pop in for lunch, parents and toddlers can spend an afternoon together enjoying plenty of space and play facilities inside and outside, and when some the local families that we support come to join us after school for a meal and the rest of the evening.  On this particular Thursday, Ruth, my wife, quite exceptionally interrupted me while I was on the phone to tell me that someone very special had just arrived.  And she was right. 

Out of the blue, or to be more precise, recently arrived from Canada with her husband Wally and brother, Ralph, was Rosetta.  Rosetta first came to Mill Grove  as a child in 1934 (that’s 72 years earlier).  The three of them were already poring over photos of childhood days at Mill Grove when I found them.  And they weren’t the only ones, for Joyce, who lives in nearby Walthamstow, was also eagerly scanning the photos with them.  She had arrived as a girl in 1938 and they remembered each other and were swapping memories and recollections.

Joyce comes to join us every week now and she likes to help with the preparations for Thursday lunch. So it was no surprise to see her. But she was absolutely delighted to see Rosetta and Ralph.  The period that they had lived at Mill Grove was well before my time, but my parents had often talked of them, and so I had known about them from my childhood and we knew each others’ stories.  But that wasn’t all: the connections were more extensive than this. 

I had just arrived back from Colorado Springs a few days before this Thursday, where I had linked up with some of the “Mill Grove family” (that’s the best term we can find to describe the worldwide network of attachments and bonds forged during childhoods among those who have lived in our house).  I had been chatting with Margaret, who had herself come to live at Mill Grove in the early 1940s.   (Because it was the war years she actually arrived first at the village of Tiptree in Essex, where the whole of our family had been evacuated, not far from the ancient Roman town of Colchester).

Margaret had been telling me how awful the period of foster care was for her and her two sisters before they came to Mill Grove.  They had been told by their foster parents to expect a harsh regime, barbed wire, locks, walls and the lot!  So, on the spur of the moment, I thought I would ask Rosetta and Joyce if by any chance they remembered Margaret.  And they did. 

They talked of the day they came.  Pa White (that’s my grandfather) had called everyone together to let them know that three young girls were coming who had had a very rough time.  He didn’t elaborate, but explained that it was important that the older children were especially welcoming and kind to them.  It seems to have worked, because that’s exactly what happened, and they were obviously thrilled to see how different things were to what they expected.

So here were people living as far apart as Canada, America and London, having lived together as children for a few years in a period spanning the Second World War, and they were connected in remarkable ways by memories, feelings, and a common sense of roots.  One of the means of keeping them in touch has been the yearly newsletter of Mill Grove called Links. Its main purpose is to share family news from the past year from around the world, and it is clearly serving its function well.

It was so heart-warming to be having lunch together so many decades later and chatting over old times and more recent news of families and friends.  And I almost forgot to mention that it’s significant that Rosetta just popped in without prior phone calls: she simply knew she would be welcomed, and that someone would be at home who was part of the family (her “other family”) which she joined all those years ago.  Perhaps it is this “taken-for-grantedness” that home is always there for you, that is one of the most important dimensions of what family means.  So much for the trans-Atlantic connection.

Trans-Pacific Links

A second connection was trans-Pacific, between Brazil and Kuala Lumpur.  For several years I have been encouraged by what I have been learning about a network of kindergartens in the favelas of Brazil: something like two hundred have been set up and out of them have grown thriving Christian communities of women and men, as well as children and young people.  It was so good at last to be able to spend a day in one on the outskirts of Sao Paulo last month.  (Perhaps I ought to write about some of the encounters, conversations and feelings associated with that unforgettable day another time.)

When I got back home I had the joy of chatting with my daughter-in-law, who some years before had worked as a volunteer in one of these (PEPE) projects.  What a small world! But it was to get even smaller a few days later when three of my dear friends from Kuala Lumpur came to stay at Mill Grove.  Two of them had been my students doing a Master’s course in Penang, Malaysia in 2001.  Since then, they had set up a Montessori School in one of the poor areas of the city, and I’m always delighted to be invited to spend a weekend with them when I am in Malaysia.  Their commitment, professional and spiritual, continues to encourage and inspire me.

They showed me photos of their boys’ football team.  It was set up this summer and I had been granted the privilege of keeping goal in a friendly practice before the serious competition began.  They showed me photos of one or two of the subsequent matches.  Imagine my surprise when I saw the team kitted out in the full Brazilian international colours!  I was taken back both by the quality of the kit (way better than that of their opponents) and puzzled at why it should have been chosen.  “Oh”, they said, “You introduced us to one of the PEPE team at a consultation in June this year.  She told us of a Brazilian coach in Kuala Lumpur and he offered to train our team of boys.  Because they come from poor and refugee families he suggested a nominal fee. The shirts were thrown in too!”

It was such a joy to see how this simple introduction had worked.  It’s not every day that the favelas export something so special abroad: and this kit was of immeasurable value to the self-esteem and worth of the boys who are wearing it.  And Mill Grove had inadvertently forged the connection by linking two sets of friends with each other.

And then this week in the Philippines there was the third connection I wanted to share with you.  Some of you may know that we have what we call family prayers at Mill Grove.  It’s an informal time at the end of the main meal of the day when we read part of the Bible story and pray for any of our family or friends on our minds.  Out of this has come a new international Bible released in its first printing in October this year. 

One of the reasons I was travelling to the Philippines (it sounds ridiculous when I write it, because it’s nearly half way round the world!) was to give a copy of the first printing of this Bible to a Filipino friend of mine called David.  His family lives in one of the poor squatter areas in Metro Manila, right beside a cemetery.  In 2003 when he was ten years old we met for the first time, and he gave me one of his paintings: it was in oil, and done as he prefers to paint, with his fingers rather than a brush.

The painting is, in my view, quite remarkable in its conception and depth.  It is an abstract work with the theme, Storm.  It hangs in the room at Mill Grove that we use for personal chats and discussions that need to be private.  Several people have explained to me how it resonates with their feelings and fears.  Well, as David had given this precious picture to me as a gift, and I knew that his family was so poor, I wanted to give something in return, and it was on the spur of the moment that I showed him electronic versions of the 500 original illustrations in this new Bible on my laptop.  He was mesmerised by them, and that was how I came to promise him that I would give him a copy of the first printing.

And so it happened that on Wednesday morning, 25 October 2007, three years later, David and I met in Cagayan de Oro, a coastal city in Mindanao, in the southern Philippines.  I gave him a copy of the Bible conceived at the meal table at Mill Grove and designed and produced over the past twenty years. We spent a good part of the day together, and shared a meal as well as a double ice-cream. 

As he flicked through the Bible, he said he thought he could have done more than one of the illustrations himself.  And then, possibly to prove the point, he gave me another picture that he had painted the day before.  It is called Children Praying for the City.  Apparently it only took him an hour or so, but it is another painting of extraordinary insight, scope and depth for a thirteen-year-old boy.

And this explains why I am writing this column in Singapore heading back to London with an original painting in my suitcase, while David is showing his family his personal copy of the Bible.  One of the things I want to ask the family at Mill Grove is where we should hang this stunning picture, suffused with an orange light.

So, in a period of a month, there have been these three special sets of connections all served by the hub of Mill Grove.  Out of and through this single place have come worldwide connections. 

Whatever label you give Mill Grove, it wouldn’t be far from the truth to say that it finds itself in the business of connecting people.  And that’s not because we deliberately set out to do this as a matter of strategy or policy: it’s all about serendipities.  These connections are by-products of the caring process.  Stick around in the same place for more than a century committed to caring for children and young people right through their lives and into the next and following generations and this is what seems to happen.

And the connections are of considerable significance in providing a sense of security, self-worth and belonging to the people involved.   They are two-way attachments through which feelings and emotions can be shared.  Perhaps in our search for appropriate terms for those engaged in social care or child care in the UK we should also consider the term connecting people.  We could do far worse than this.

All I need to do now to get this to you is to find an internet connection!

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