Gill's story

I was born in Nigeria, in Umuahia, as my father worked for the Methodist Church Overseas division as a teacher in Uzuakoli, and we lived there until I was 7 years old. I had always wanted to go back and see where I was born, and as my mother was still in touch with MCOD, she knew about Ros Colwill and her work in the Leprosy Colony and setting up the new project of Amaudo. I was qualified as a social worker and at that time was working in a hostel for Homeless People, so the project was of great interest to me. I met Ros at MCOD and talked to her about the project and arranged that I should go as a volunteer for a 6 month period in 1990. It was the very early days of Amaudo, only the first few buildings were up, so it was an exciting time to be there. I then returned to work as a paid member of staff, supported by Christians Abroad for a further 2 years from 1902 – 94.

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Working at Amaudo was a wonderful experience and I got the opportunity to do all sorts of things that I might not have done otherwise. My first role was workshop supervisor, overseeing the skills training workshops for residents, which both supported their recovery and gave them skills for work when they were well enough to return home. At the end of the time I was there Amaudo was given another parcel of land locally, and it had already been identified that there was a need for a long stay project for those people who could not be resettled, so plans were made to develop a long stay project for residents who for one reason or another were unable to return home. This included a ‘family’ style house where residents with learning disabilities could be looked after in supported environment, with residential ‘house parent staff’ sharing the house with them, as well as a community ‘village’ for those who could live more independently, and an income generating project. I was really inspired by this prospect and it was agreed that I should return after 12 months, to set the project up.

I travelled for a period and then came back and worked in the UK, before returning to Nigeria in 1992 for 2 years setting up the new Amaudo Ntalkwu project for long stay residents. This was a very special period in my life. I was entrusted with an important and meaningful responsibility, and was challenged with a wide range of tasks to get the project up and running, liaising with local residents, local builders and suppliers of building materials, local government departments etc etc. It was wonderful to be with the project from the start, seeing the land as an undeveloped area of bush, helping to clear it, marking out the building plots, seeing the first buildings going up, helping to clear and plant an area of farm land, settling up an income generating project producing tie-dye textile goods, and finally employing staff and moving the first residents in.

There were inevitable challenges – climate, culture shock, missing family and home, and the frustrations of working in a different and unfamiliar environment. But my overall memory was of loving it and feeling fully engaged and alive.

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I was very impressed by the holistic approach that existed at Amaudo: the way spiritual life was at the heart of the community, residents and workers lived alongside each other in circle of houses with the chapel in the centre; and the recognition of the importance of routine, work, play, and prayer in the recovery to mental good health. Amaudo also encouraged residents to take an active role in the community, valued their contributions, and provided training for resettlement by helping people find a way to make a living. While they were in Amaudo their physical health was looked after by providing a balanced diet, exercise and medical treatment when needed, as well as appropriate medication for mental illness, adjusted for each individual. Finally there was a strong recognition of the importance of family in people’s recovery, and building bridges with their home communities before they were finally resettled.

Although I was not directly involved, I really appreciated the fact that Amaudo was addressing the causes of homelessness for people with mental health problems as well, by setting up a Community Psychiatric programme, to try and treat people at home before they became homeless.

I met so many wonderful residents, and lots of amazing stories, but I will have never forget Uzoma, a young girl with severe learning disability who lived in the family house at the long stay project where I worked. There was also a resident who had a young child, NnaNna, who had been born on the streets, and when he was first at Amaudo he continued begging. However he soon settled into the life of the community, playing with the other children, and going to school. I became a surrogate ‘auntie’ to him and developed a special bond with him, and every morning he would come knocking on my door. I loved the time I spent with him and continued to support him after I left.

I believe that although a lot has been done, homelessness amongst people with mental health problems is not going to go away that easily and the needs are likely to be ongoing. As well as continuing to provide rehabilitation for those people who do end up on the streets, there will be an ongoing need for preventative activity, in particular:

• For education, as there are misunderstandings and unhelpful beliefs about mental health and its causes;

• And support for families, who are often struggling alone to cope with the difficulties their loved ones with mental illness present

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For this reason I would encourage anyone to support Amaudo and its work in whatever way they can. However, if anyone, like me, is considering getting more personally involved I would strongly encourage it. For me getting personally involved by working for the project, I can honestly say it changed my life. On my return to the UK I had a strong desire to continue to work in an environment which brought my spiritual life and my working life together in some way, and for many years after my return I managed a day centre for homeless people that was set up and run by a church.

And the connections I made with other people working there have continued, and in particular I am now working for an organisation which provides mental health assessments and support for homeless people in London which was established and is run by an ex volunteer. The ripples from Amaudo continue to spread out and have their influence on many people’s lives.

You can donate to Amaudo here