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Georgia: A wonderful social togetherness

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Since 1995, the Michael School in Tbilisi has offered children in need of unusual care opportunities to learn in a loving environment, and according to their possibilities. In Georgia, there are hardly any social or welfare programmes for people with disabilities and their families. Therapeutic education and social therapy institutions receive no funding from the state. That is why the Friends of Waldorf Education have been providing support to pay colleagues’ salaries at the Michael School in Tbilisi for many years, and also helping to fund the construction of the school. Janette Gülker-Neuhaus is a therapeutic education teacher in Everswinkel and she visited the Michael School in October 2021 and spring 2022. She reports for us on everyday life at the school.

In October 2021, I was able to visit Georgia again for a month. I spent a lot of time at the Michael School and in the school grounds, because as so often, I stayed in the welcoming guest room, which is located in an older, small building.

In the early days of the visit, when it was still warm enough, school started every morning at 9 am in the courtyard, with the morning circle for everyone. Later it was moved inside the hall. It is impressive to see how the habits that have been cultivated for years give the children support and security. It is clear that they feel at home here and enjoy being in the beautiful surroundings. They know each other - children, young people and their teachers – and they form a real community through the day. Newly arrived children, or children with particularly challenging behaviours, are taken into the centre and quite often they soon find their place in the school, thanks to the warmth and encouragement. The older pupils take on a particularly important role here. Often, they are like a big friend, or a helping sister or brother for the younger and often more difficult children. All in all, a wonderful social togetherness.

Melodies, recitations, flute notes and other sounds emanate from the individual classrooms, often interspersed with the restless or uncontrolled noises of some children. The vast majority of pupils live with intense physical, emotional and mental impairments and it takes a great deal of empathic sensitivity to recognise their sensitivities and needs, and to design lessons that do justice to them all. The teachers and their assistants devote themselves to this task with great dedication. I have huge respect for their work and say, "Didi madloba (Georgian for 'thank you very much'), dear colleagues!"

I visited the school again in the spring of 2022. This time, my stay in Georgia and at Michael's School was marked by new conditions. Winter-time continued into March, and the effects of the war in Ukraine were very present.

Daily snow and sleet continued into April this spring. It was often bitterly cold, and the winds swept through the city. Children and young people stayed at home for weeks because of the weather conditions. Some of the teachers and children couldn't get to school because there are no snow clearing services in the area.

On the streets in Tbilisi, the Russian language is suddenly very present. Young Russians, some with their families, and numerous people from Ukraine and other Slavic countries are changing the familiar cityscape.

Meanwhile, at the school, sanding, hammering, painting and repairing was going on alongside the lessons. The long-planned renovation work finally got underway. Marina and her team managed to hire craftsmen for this work, and they did their jobs more or less well.

Within just a few weeks, the costs of daily living rose enormously; the trips by metro, bus and taxi cab by as much as 100 percent. The prices for electricity and heating have also risen mightily, and even basic foodstuffs such as bread, vegetables, cereals and dairy products have become much more expensive. For the many people whose income is at the lower limit, this is a heavy challenge.

It touches me to experience how the community of the Michael School, not least because of the losses and difficulties, forms more and more into a community of destiny. They belong together, the teachers and pupils who have been there from the beginning, and all the children and adults who follow. Children, teachers and parents know that they can rely on each other. They feel united in the endeavour to provide a school and a contact point for the children and young people with special needs. The older ones help with the daily chores; they wash vegetables, take care of the rubbish, tidy up the yard and share responsibility for the well-being of the younger ones. I can say from experience that the Michael School is a community of love.

Everyone is always doing their best, and yet it doesn't seem to be enough. Through my observations in the classes, it became clear to all of us how challenging the children are, and how even more intensive support and therapeutic offers are necessary. In this context, the wish arose for a so-called sensory garden in which the children, accompanied by adults, can experience different sensory impressions every day and thus strengthen their experiences of themselves. The teachers also need encouragement and suggestions as to how to awaken to healing intuitions. They are also in urgent need of better wages for their livelihoods. Although the children's parents are grateful that the Michael School exists, they tend to be cautious with their support work and their courage, uncertain whether it is worthwhile to invest time, energy and money in this venture.

Despite everything, the teachers demand an infinite amount from themselves to be faithful and loving companions to the children.

The sun's rays, which warmed us in between times, awakened the children's spirits. Suddenly, exuberant children appeared and whoops of joy rose high into the greening trees and bushes. With their good moods, they also reached the adults. It was as if all the daily worries about life becoming more expensive, and the anxieties regarding an uncertain future were blown away, at least for a while.

A small but very committed further education seminar meets weekly at the Michael School to work together and there are periodic block seminars. I was lucky and was able to work with five colleagues on the theme of 'The Twelve Senses'. A warm, open and interested group of young people who dedicated themselves with joy and enthusiasm to therapeutic education and anthroposophical themes. Among them is even a prospective priest of the Carmelite Order, which also runs therapeutic education facilities in Georgia. I wonder if there is a future member of staff for the Michael School among them?

Some teachers will leave the school in the summer. Apart from the personal reasons and circumstances, the low earnings unfortunately also play a role. Despite the unique annual support from the Friends of Waldorf Education, the salary is simply not enough for a regular living. Some make do by taking on an additional part-time job, as they did in the nineties when Georgia was in transition. Others look around for better economic opportunities - which is all too understandable!

There is no further support in sight from the school authorities. Unfortunately, a school for children and young people with extreme support needs finds no lobby at all in Georgia.

With the pleasant weather and the warming sun, new spirits awoke, and hope and confidence returned. The spring bazaar brought everyone together, a sensory garden with many possibilities for sensory experiences is being planned, and the first steps are being taken. We are collecting donations for the next steps.

Janette Gülker-Neuhaus

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