Welcome to the Adventure

Living in Mexico is often indescribable...you just have to live here. I have been journaling experiences for a while, and I hope you can get a feel for stupid-ass gringos trying to get it. But I am still here, and that says a lot for those of us sticking it out, as the payback is what makes life so good here.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Piña Palmera - an oasis and opportunity for people with disabilities on the southern coastal Oaxaca

Piña Palmera, an independent-living program, based in Zipolite, for persons with disabilities including children and adults, has been a major resource in our area for over 20+ years. Adults and children from the rural communities that dot our coastal area have an opportunity to become independent, develop skills to facilitate their independence, and promote the acceptance of people with disabilities with dignity and respect. Clients are referred to Piña Palmera by doctors, outreach workers, families, communities and word of mouth. They come as outpatient or live-in clients, for education, vocational training, and learning independent living skills. Many clients have mainstreamed into their communities, living healthy, active lives, creating their own families, raising children, and earning respectable livings from the skills learned at Piña Palmera.

Using a wheelchair myself, it has been interesting/frustrating to experience accessibility throughout the world, and getting around in Mexico has been a challenge.... Ignorance, lack of publicity and enforcement of disability laws are all components that hold back opportunities for many people with disabilities in Mexico, especially in the rural areas, including Oaxaca. Anyone who has traveled in Mexico can attest to the challenge. In Oaxaca this is compounded by the very fact that it is still a very rural state, with little infrastructure to facilitate people with disabilities. Inclusive schools are haphazard at best, as a result many children are excluded from an education. Job opportunities in rural areas are almost nonexistent, and typically, many disabled workers are self-employed or do not work.

Piña Palmera’s mission statement says it all: “Our mission is to contribute to the improvement of the quality of life for people with disabilities and their families in the southern coast of Oaxaca.” Our tour guide, Helen Heule, a volunteer there for four years, spoke to us at great length about Piña Palmera’s programs and their clients. They serve over 400 individuals right now, from communities including Puerto Escondido, Rio Grande, Morro Mazatan, Candelaria Loxicha, Tierra Blanca, Zipolite, and Cozoaltepec. Founded by Frank Douglas in 1984, it was initially built as a shelter for children with disabilities, and in the early days, many children were abandoned there. There are still four clients there from those days, and you would have to be very tough at heart to not want to reach out and do something for them and all of the others that come into Piña Palmera. In 1997, Piña Palmera was completely destroyed by Hurricane Paulina. It has since rebuilt into a what feels like a small African village, with round houses (brick) with thatched roofs, set in groves of palms and mango trees. Both the Swedish and Japanese governments have made contributions to the rebuilding and continuation of Piña Palmera after Paulina. Pina Palmera does not receive any funding from the state or federal government.

The day Larry and I visited, we had an opportunity of observe an early intervention session, with therapists working with toddlers in developing their physical/cognitive skills. Our tour led us through the lovely, park-like campus, and we visited the wood shop, paper making shop, and various therapy rooms. We met several volunteers, most of whom have been there for more than two years. Their enthusiasm, integrity, and skills have created a unique, compassionate, experience for their clients. The wood shop and paper making shop are run by former clients, now responsible for the business of creating beautiful handcrafted products and running the businesses. Francisco, himself a former client, was supervising the paper making process the day we visited. These lovely pieces of art are sold in Piña Palmera’s gift shop, run by Patricia, also a former client, which winningly displays the beautiful (and famous) flying wood birds, in brilliant and subtle colors, and diaries made of the homemade paper (colors are all natural dies including the reds from almond shells, and flowers and leaves are often in the paper). They also sell artisan crafts made by other persons with disabilities, artists in the area, allowing an outlet for many of these talented people.

Piña Palmera, though needs help. The world economy has hurt their funding tremendously. Flavia Anau, the director, indicated they are succeeding by a fragile thread, and are greatly in need of an infusion of money and volunteers. The money issue is obvious. It is expensive to pursue the dream of independence and acceptance in an area like Oaxaca. Of their many needs, a carpenter with machine experience would be greatly appreciated. Their woodworking workshop needs a leader that can teach others to work in wood, and maintain their machinery. A perfect fit for a retired carpenter!

Piña Palmera has started up an internet cafe as a way of funding the facility (minimally) , and they could use a computer tech type person to troubleshoot the computers, and train others in maintenance and solutions to the myriad small problems that come with computers. On Saturdays, one can have a massage ($250 peso donation) or a temazcal and massage for $300 peso donation, another fund raising project. After your temazcal and massage, there is pizza served (included in cost) made in their new brick oven. The brick oven is also used for their fledgling ceramics workshop, as they just made a pottery wheel in their wood shop, and are using the oven for their ceramic projects (along with the pizza!). They are also selling used clothing once a week, to help acquire more funds, but at this point it is all too little.

Volunteers come from all over the world, Europe, the US and Canada. They ask volunteers to stay at least six months for obvious reasons. Relationships are built slowly. Working with families, communities, and schools takes time. Volunteers come with credentials such as physical therapists, occupational therapists, psychologists,and medical doctors, but this is not required to volunteer here. All they ask of volunteers though, is their willingness to do what needs to be done, and learn Spanish if they do not yet know the language. Volunteers can live on the campus for a slight charge of $150 pesos a month, which covers room and board. Meals are cooked in a community kitchen for both clients and staff.

Volunteers and clients interact with the ease of family. We felt it even upon our arrival, being welcomed warmly, and introduced around as seemingly old friends. Helen greeted everyone with a touch, and show of support and respect. She represented the very best of one of their major goals “to generate social acceptance in the region towards people with disabilities”. This is one of the major thrusts of this organization. They have been particularly active in the communities, especially in the schools and municipalities, in sensitizing people to the acceptance of people with disabilities, and to facilitate the goal of independence through accessibility. But it has been a mixed bag at best. Some schools/communities embrace students with special needs. They are supported by Piña Palmera, and train not only teachers but students in practicing inclusion. (Sign language and brail are taught at the facility by former clients. Families, teachers, and community members are encouraged to take classes.) Other schools will not take these children, who obviously then are left out of any opportunity of attaining independence and dignity, except through the programs at Piña Palmera.

If you are in the area, visit! If you can help by lending a hand, do it! Go to their web site:
http://www.piñapalmera.org and read their extensive information regarding their history, purpose, and progress reports. If you care to donate money, information is on their web site. Donations of educational toys and developmental tools would be helpful, but if you have a skill you can teach others to facilitate independence, all the better. We all can do something during this time of economic struggles, to lessen theirs. It is a worthwhile, admirable project.

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