Caring for the earth, hope for the most vulnerable
By Cecilia Seppia – Vatican City
Ottavio says that the land is his home and farming is his job. Simona loves making jams and spreads, and she assures us that the hazelnut one "is really good". Marco, on the other hand, likes to be in contact with animals, especially donkeys, which he has looked after since they were little foals. Then there are those who, like Vincenzo, prefer to devote their time to the vegetable garden: sowing, hoeing and watering vegetables for sale. Simone adores the strawberries he grows in the greenhouse: after having taken care of them so much, seeing them sprout is for him a sort of miracle which never ceases to amaze him. It's a pity that, when it's time to harvest, he plops one of them in the basket and the other in his mouth because "they are too good, they’re impossible to resist!” And how can you blame him?!
The social farms project
All of these young people, welcomed by the Foundation "Oltre il Labirinto" of Treviso, suffer from autism spectrum disorders, but as President Mario Paganessi tells us, they find solace in an everyday “therapy” of caring for the land, making limited but important progress and improvements, capable of bringing joy to the assistants who follow them, their families and friends, but also the prospect of a normal life. "We have been providing the project of the Social Farms (Farm4Autism) for several years and we continuously try to enrich it with different activities and workshops,” says Paganessi. The contact with nature is fundamental in these places, as it is able to stimulate emotional and behavioral abilities in people with mental disabilities and offer them a resource for inclusion, an independent employment future, but above all the experience, often precluded, of recovering their dignity, of feeling an active part of society. We always say: 'care for the earth and the earth will care for you; respect the earth and the earth will respect you' and this 'slogan' is certainly valid for our young people but, as the Pope says, it should be an imperative for all people, to try to recover that alliance between humanity and the environment that would be good for both and that today seems to be broken".
Protecting the earth by caring for the vulnerable
“Oltre il Labirinto”, was created in 2009, well before the publication of the Encyclical Laudato si’, and yet, the President affirms, “we feel like a community that fully embraces Francis’ words” when he says that one cannot have a true sense of deep communion with the rest of nature if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings, above all for the poor, the vulnerable, those on the margins of society... “Everything is connected. Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society.” (LS, 91).
A drop in the sea
“When the Encyclical speaks of integral ecology,” Paganessi continues, “the Pope says that mankind is an integral part of nature, of the environment in which we live and we’d be fools to think we were something apart from Creation. So, these are the concepts that fully reflect our way of working. The project of saving the world is undoubtedly an ambitious one, but we cannot give up just because it’s a frightening prospect or because we don’t feel up to the task. We may be a drop in the sea, it’s true, but we’ve understood the urgent, and not just the therapeutic, need for our young people to return to the earth, to return to dialogue with it. Our young people are among those vulnerable people, the fragile who the Holy Father speaks about, as fragile as nature itself is today. But, together they become strong!”
Agriculture and workshops
The young guests of the Foundation, which grew out of the common vision and professional competencies of parents of autistic children, work in the open air nine months out of the year. They also participate in many workshops such as the one for cooking which has been very popular. They cultivate vegetable gardens, sow plants in greenhouses, and harvest fruit. They realize that working the land is demanding, tough, but is also very gratifying. Farming is also a sort of safe harbor for those who, like them, find it hard to understand the outside world and communicate with others. They learn the language of plants and their self-esteem grows alongside the budding of tomato seedlings. They become aware of the cycle of life and they feel a part of it. “This makes them feel good,” says Paganessi who confirms this brings “social inclusion; behavioral stereotypes diminish and they acquire specific technical and operative experience which, when applied well, can be repeated and harnessed in wider activities, therefore generating inclusion at the job level.” For this reason, many businesses in the Veneto region have decided to support the Foundation, launching various social projects which have become a part of that virtuous circle which has been able to make a difference in the lives of many families.
Biologically friendly products
Everyone on the farm has his or her specific job, rules and work-shifts to respect, but all have the common desire to wake up in the morning, get dressed and run to work. This is the powerful and ancient calling of the earth! What’s more, here at this farm in Treviso, they only offer biological products grown and produced fully free of man-made contaminants, respecting all the resources that nature has to offer while safeguarding biodiversity. All are themes contained in Laudato si’ which has always inspired “Oltre il Labirinto”.
Part of a larger picture
“Our young people may not always realize this,” Paganessi affirms, “but I believe that in some way, they realize that through their work, they are contributing to the care of our Common Home. Of course, all of our products are biological and we also work with experts and master artisans who use production techniques that fully respect the environment, so for the oil, ice cream, and for the hazelnut spread. We also have recycling projects, for example with the cork tops which would be thrown away who knows where. But by recovering the cork, we create beautiful things, even including construction panels or furniture, drawers… What you see in the faces of our young people is joy, the pure happiness of taking part in something that is bigger than they are! Watching them at work or while they’re involved in the various activities, you’d almost want to say that notwithstanding the difficulties, they are the true protagonists of ecological conversion and we can learn a lot from them.