Neighborhood adopts Anasa residents
Alongside the noisy nightclubs of Votanikos, the Anasa guesthouse offers a better quality of life to people with severe autism. The project owes its success to the collective efforts and selflessness of many people. Among those involved are the workers at the guesthouse, neighbors, the Church and many anonymous helpers. «It started about five years ago, when moves were afoot to close down the Daou Pendeli Clinic,» explained Artemis Heila, the medical superintendent at Anasa. «In early 2007, the most severely affected patients had nowhere to go.» Heila undertook to take the patients to a new location and make sure they had decent living conditions. «They were adults who had been institutionalized for decades. They had never set foot outside the clinic, and many had spent their lives tied to their beds or in cages.» Trust It was a major endeavor to move the patients to the new building and to create a climate of trust with their new caregivers. «In the first few months, we visited them every day in the clinic so as to establish a personal relationship with them,» said Heila. By June 2007, the residents had their first home, each with their own room, with trained staff to care for them. The aim of deinstitutionalization is for patients to become independent and start working. Individuals with severe autism can learn «to look after themselves and live in harmony with others,» Heila said. Social worker Anthi Koutsoupi introduced the residents, Tassos, Popi, Yiannis, Dimitris K and Dimitris B. There’s a music show on TV in the living room; on the walls are photographs of the residents at the beach and one of the residents is having breakfast in the kitchen. Are these the people who until recently were being treated like wild animals? «They have undergone a literal transformation,» said Maria Constantopoulou, the project’s psychologist. «For example, in the past when Yiannis was thirsty, he would hit his head on the wall. Now, 17 months later, he goes into the kitchen by himself and gets water. Popi used not to want to bathe or brush her hair. Now she won’t come down to the living room without putting on pefume and tying a ribbon in her hair.» Imagination Living all together at Anasa takes patience, imagination and perceptiveness, because people with severe autism do no talk, but communicate in their own way. «For a long time, Dimitris would point at the wall, but I didn’t understand at first that he wanted me to turn off the air conditioner, but now I know,» said nurse Nikos Vouzounerakis. One vital factor is stability, as sudden changes upset people with autism. They have talents and skills you’d never guess,» said Koutsoupi. «They have an interest in the arts and very highly developed intuition. If I come to work one day feeling upset, they pick up on it immediately.» There are traces of the old days when the residents were cooped up, but they are aware of the love being offered them and they return it in different ways. «They have become very tender; they want us to hug and caress them,» said nurse Anna Viazenova. Anasa is one of the projects in the Psychargos deinstitutionalization program, which is struggling to survive for lack of funds. «It’s been a battle to ensure that the staff is paid regularly,» Heila noted. Up to the end of 2008, Anasa received 80 percent of its funding from the European Union but, as of this year, that funding comes from the Greek state and has dropped to 40 percent. It also arrives late. «We have survived through a lot of effort and self-sacrifice. Several times the members of the board have reached deep into their own pockets. Besides, the Votanikos neighborhood embraced us from the outset, and storekeepers offer us what they can,» she added. «It’s a pleasure to send as many sandwiches as I can,» Marina from the corner shop told Kathimerini. «After all, we know them; they often come by for a walk.» Markella at the greengrocer’s is equally willing. Most of the help comes from the local church, Aghia Markella. Every afternoon Father Timotheos brings a hot meal for the residents and often sits down to eat with them. «The church’s charity brings the food during the week, and the local housewives take care of weekend meals. In Votanikos, there’s still a neighborly atmosphere. We’ve adopted the residents and we’ll fight to keep them here,» he told Kathimerini. It’s touching to get help from the public but it is not enough. «Every contribution is welcome, from detergent to luxury items. If there’s a piano somewhere that is never played, we could put it to good use here to cultivate the residents’ artistic talents,» Koutsoupi said.