Vinca Petersen interviewed by Sheryl Garratt
When my son Archie was born, I settled in Ramsgate, on the Kent coast, and after a couple of years I did a Fine Art degree. I was reading about Joseph Beuys, and his ideas on social sculpture, and thinking about all these separate threads in my life: my travelling, my son, my photography, and this desire to do humanitarian work. And I decided to bring them all together as an art piece, Future Youth Project.
We raised money by doing a 70-mile sponsored walk along the South Downs Way, and we bought a minibus. The idea was to take people to the Ukraine on this bus, which takes about seven days. They’d have an amazing experience on the way, and then they would volunteer, which makes them feel good about themselves. And the people at the other end would have an amazing time, because we’d arrived to help them. And I felt good for organising it, so everyone wins: there are no martyrs, and no angels, which is important.
We went to South Eastern Ukraine, to a huge, old Menonite farmstead, in the middle of the flat, endless grassland of the Russian Steppes. In the 1950s it had been turned into a home for people with disabilities. A charity had gained access to it a couple of years before, and found all these children and adults tied up, often naked, in dark rooms on plastic mattresses. By the time we got there it was slightly better, but it was still pretty bad. The adult men and teenage boys were just in a mess. You had everything from boys who were just blind to very severely disabled men literally lying on the dirt on the floor. There was a lot of rocking, a lot of institutional behaviours, nothing at all for them to do. When the food came out, all of the bullies would grab it. It was horrendous. So we decided that we would support these 47 disabled men.
Since 2013 we’ve employed an educator, who goes in five days a week, and gives them things to do. They do drawing, embroidery, singing. Some of them have learned to write. They each have a box with their name on, and the whole atmosphere of the place has changed, because they’re seen as people now.
We’ve been back many times to visit with a bus full of volunteers. We take them swimming in a lake, and we play the most amazing football matches, when people run off with the ball or just refuse to hand it back or even end up chewing it.
It’s become self-perpetuating now, and some of the volunteers now go out there on their own. It’s great because it gives them a lot of confidence too: they don’t tend to be people who would normally volunteer.
The majority of our work now centers around our teacher who works with the 47 men at Kalinovka State Orphanage, but we have also started to help a few of the men live semi-independently in their own home. Both the lessons with our teacher and the chance for some to live independently raises the mens’ spirits. Once abandoned as worthless, they are now respected, not only as humans, but as students and men capable of re-integrating into the world outside the orphanage, and adding their wonderful characters to the fabric of society.
An important part of our process is driving to Ukraine with a mini-bus full of volunteers, visiting our project there, and hanging out with the young men & children we support.