I have lost count of the number of people over the years who have shared with me their ideas for a new home for children. Some were so creative and stirring that they still linger in my mind. And yet I cannot recall any who have subsequently asked me to come and see the finished product: to view, as it were, the word become flesh. The dreams always seemed to have foundered for one reason or another: lack of finance, insufficient practical wisdom and professional knowledge, red tape, and so on.
So you can imagine may surprise and joy when on a visit to the Philippines recently I had the privilege of seeing a new home that had been designed from scratch, and whose outlines had been shared with me years before. It is the brainchild of a dear colleague and friend of mine, a psychologist, Dr Gundelina Velazco. The place is for girls who have been rescued from sexual trafficking in Manila. It is located at a safe distance in sight of the green, tree-clad volcanic hills that are a feature of so much of the landscape north of Manila.
The home has no sign to indicate its existence or nature, and it is surrounded by high walls topped by barbed wire fencing. The security at the gate is tight. I was made to sign an agreement on entering and my photo was taken as a precaution.
Inside these walls, and set in the middle of a lush garden of fruit, vegetables, flowers and shrubs is indeed, as it name implies, a modern one-storey round house.
To the left is a round chapel without walls. Its roof reminded me of the chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, designed by Le Corbusier, with its simple allusions to times long past, and its invitation to enter it. After a quiet stroll around the garden, and between a collection of coconut trees, I took a seat in the chapel and paused for thought.
Prominent from where I sat was a large tree house, with a broad wooden staircase making it easily accessible to all the residents.
And as I was pondering all this, Dr Velazco walked quietly towards me, and sat beside me.
As we chatted it became clear that she had conceived everything on the basis of her psychological knowledge, her practical wisdom, and her huge store of relationships with street children and their families. Nothing had been left to chance.
There are no sharp corners in the house or the chapel. The colours of the house are all pastel shades: no primary colours. The reason will be clear to all who know the work of Rudolph Steiner. Primary colours, particularly red are too strident, too emotive. Meanwhile the garden around the chapel is monochrome: all green. This invites stillness and reflection. All the shrubs are single trees or plants, so that the girls can identify with them. Each shrub is surrounded by round stones: once again no sharp corners.
The tree house is one of the most substantial I have seen: with its sturdy staircase, thatched roof and open sides. It is one of the main places for therapy. Why? Usually counselling takes place in small, rather dingy rooms in the interests of guaranteeing the confidentiality of both what is said, and also the relationship. Such a setting can be confined to the point of feeling claustrophobic, especially for girls and women who have suffered chronically in confined spaces from which they could not escape. The tree house represents a striking alternative: because of it height and its separation from the round house and any other buildings, it is a place that is safe, and where conversation can be completely confidential.
Yet the person who is with the counsellor or therapist is in an open space, with clear views of the garden, and the green cone-shaped hills beyond the walls and the vilage. Others know she is there, but the enounter is private. What is more the height of the house means that the person involved looks down on the garden: she is in that sense in control of what she sees.
Thus every part of the home and its surroundings is designed with sensitivity and an awareness of the nature of safe space. The spacious garden is cultivated with a variety of trees, herbs, fruit and vegetables. It means that the home is self-sufficient in herbs and vegetables. Taken together as a whole it is, in my view, a creation of genius.
Each day, each week is carefully shaped, with private time, communal gatherings and group tasks, time for personal activities, and also for relaxation. The Rule of Benedict has been respected whether consciously or not.
There is a system of rewards for good behaviour which is carefully tailored to the nature of particular individuals and the dynamics of groups. Rewards include shopping trips and visits to special places.
Two of the girls living there during my visit each had a child of their own. Care of these was provided mostly by their mothers, but the whole group formed a caring community. The presence of these two little children had a substantial effect on the dynamics of the group. They were catalysts for responsible and reciprocal relationships.
And what of the pattern or shape of life for the girls who are resident? The period of their stay in the home is by agreement, and it is a stage of their lives, which is designed to prepare them for life beyond the walls. They have regular though not frequent contact with their families, and this is supported by social workers. The families of girls and young women who have been trafficked are usually supportive of them: wanting to help to rescue them from the oppressive, merciless, tyrannic and warped relationships in which they have been trapped. Most girls return to their families.
Meanwhile, back in the heart of Manila and near the red light district the project has also spawned a ‘Round Table’ at which children of those who are sexually exploited are welcomed and fed. (There is a Tagalog word: hapag, which embraces both food and hospitality.) Some of the residents of the Round Home help out there, and there is even an embryonic plan to set up a ‘Round Village’ in Manila which would be a home for mothers, children and families. All this means that those at the Round House have a range of options as they come to terms with their pasts, adapt to the present, and begin to work out possible future shapes for their lives.
The connections with the heart of Manila are of course very significant: it means that they may return to the scene of many of their traumas. And this is a very conscious part of the whole process. They have to know and learn how to cope with this place and the realities that it represents.
Over forty girls have lived at the Round Home so far and, as I understand it thus far, none have been drawn back into their old ways of life. It is not just a brilliant idea or plan, but a practical working model.
And I felt privileged and inspired to have been invited to spend time there.