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What makes for a “most beautiful summer”?

A group of young people with special needs spend time at one of Italy’s most famous beaches, and enjoy an experience that changes their lives.

By Debora Donnini - Vatican City

There are the stories of great and important people, kings and rulers who start wars, make peace, sign treaties, and make important decisions. Then there are the other stories, the ones that are lesser known but that often change people's lives. This is one of those stories. It is about how changing hearts is the only way to change the world.

This story began 50 years ago in Italy’s Tuscany Region. Luigi Bardelli was then President of the Italian Association assisting people with cerebral palsy. It was his idea to bring a group of physically challenged young people to one of Tuscany’s most fashionable beaches. He wanted to make a point: that even people confined to a wheelchair have the right to enjoy sun, sea and sand. He felt it was time to overturn the prejudice and preconceptions that too often accompany physical and intellectual disability.

The documentary

That experience has been repeated every year since then. Which is why filmmakers Beatrice Bernacchi and Gianni Vukaj decided to create a documentary, which they entitled "The most beautiful summer". Produced by TV2000 Factory, it was screened for the first time in Rome in January this year. 

Julia and Elijah's mother, Sonia
Julia and Elijah's mother, Sonia

Faith struggles

There are stories that leave their mark and their lessons: the stories of parents who remember the difficulties they faced bringing up a child with disabilities, and who worry about what will happen to those children, now grown up, when they are no longer around. Aldo and Sonia are the parents of Giulia. She is 23 years old and suffers from motor impairment. Her brother Elia is 13 and has challenges linked to the autistic spectrum. When Elia was diagnosed, Sonia experienced a crisis of faith: "We cried and got angry with God", she says. "Then we allowed ourselves to be helped". That help came mainly through a priest, Fr Diego, whom Sonia met while accompanying Giulia to the seaside. Thanks to prayer and Holy Mass, she says, "I cried, I let off steam, I expressed my anger, and I regained my faith, which I have always had, in reality".

Fr Diego Pancaldo is the spiritual assistant of the Fondazione Maria Assunta in Cielo Onlus, a Catholic non-profit volunteer organization that works with people with disabilities. The President is Luigi Bardelli, the same person who initiated the “most beautiful summer” experiences 50 years ago. The presence of therapists and the warmth of volunteers help Sonia feel like she is part of an extended family, one that shares both her joy and pain.

View of the beach
View of the beach


In fact, this story would not be complete without all the volunteers who choose to spend between 10 and 14 days helping their young friends live their most beautiful summer. According to Sonia’s husband, Aldo, these volunteers go away transformed, often after discovering emotional resources they never knew they had. Aldo remembers being struck by the atmosphere of acceptance he and his family experienced during these summers. "The opposite of the word love, it is not hate", says Aldo, “it is selfishness. If we cannot understand that to live well, we have to give, we will get nowhere". Instead of using the verb “to have”, everyone here uses the verb “to be'". 

Francesco and Valentina in the documentary
Francesco and Valentina in the documentary


The real protagonists of this story are the young people themselves. Like Valentina, who is 24 years old, and who appears in the documentary alongside her friend, Francesco. Valentina is a graduate of the Italian tourism institute and has been attending modern dance classes for ten years. She also works as an assistant janitor. For her, the experience of doing the documentary was unforgettable, as are the summers she has spent on the beach for the last 10 years. "We are all friends”, she tells us. “We keep in touch with each other, and with the volunteers”. They go out together for a pizza, and some even go on pilgrimages, or attend World Youth Days. "The encounter with God is always in first place," says Valentina.

The presentation of the documentary in Rome
The presentation of the documentary in Rome


“We spent five days hanging out with these guys and they were a life lesson", says the producer of the documentary, Concetta Malatesta, who together with Beatrice Bernacchi and director Gianni Vukaj, describe the experience as having changed them forever. The documentary itself communicates how the real beauty of life is loving others. The love of the volunteers, the families, the young people themselves. The key lies in being accepted for who you are, not for how you look, or how others want you to be. Beatrice Bernacchi recalls the image of a young girl holding two fingers together as though she is playing with the wind. She describes the strength of the families and of the community. These communities are not like a “Never-never land”. They are islands where  everyone is welcome on their own terms. 

Luigi Bardelli is interviewed for the documentary
Luigi Bardelli is interviewed for the documentary


In the documentary, Luigi Bardelli calls love "the real formula for rehabilitation". He talks about relationships as being the key to making things better. Just like everyone else, people with disabilities grow in self-esteem when they experience loving relationships. Luigi Bardelli feels he has succeeded in breaking down some barriers, at least – even if it took a court order to “allow” the disabled young people to frequent the beach, after protests tried to stop them from being there.

Today there are specific beach structures for those with special needs, and the groups of young people are fully integrated with nearby beach establishments.

It may have taken 50 years, but now every year is a “most beautiful summer”.

04 March 2020, 18:28