Home Away from Home

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How often is it in life that we truly feel at home in a place other than our own home? What are the ingredients that allow us to feel comfortable in our own skin, undefended, and at ease?

I seem to have stumbled upon many of these intangibles as I return for the seventh time in five years to the Czech Republic. Ostensibly I come here for work – collaborating with the Klicek Foundation to grow hospital play work in their country. We travel to various cities and venues, giving lectures to students and professionals of medicine, nursing, social work, psychology, and play work about the philosophy and logistics of providing humane, family-centered care to children and families facing medical treatment. I join them in the summertime to volunteer in their hospice summer camp.  But what happens here is so much more than work.

With each visit comes an immersion in the Czech culture, and more specifically, the culture of the family who sponsor my visits. In between travel and lectures, we gather at their hospice and home in the tiny village of Malejovice, about 40 kilometers southeast of Prague in the Bohemian countryside. Here in a century old schoolhouse on a small farm (replete with donkey, sheep, chickens, many cats and a dog), the Kralovitzes welcome children and families who seek respite and comfort from lives affected by illness, disability, and loss. It is not a hospice in the way most of us would imagine. It is neither a medical facility nor a place where children go to die. Rather, it is a retreat where individual children or the whole family can relax in a natural environment, receiving nurturing in the form of companionship, a warm and caring listening ear, opportunities for play and exploration of the surrounding fields, forrests, orchards and gardens, and astoundingly good and healthy food. One falls asleep to the quiet darkness of the countryside and awakens to the bray of the donkey. It is, quite simply, magic.

Daily outings to local farmers and vendors, for cabbage, potatoes, apples, bread, butter and other essentials are interspersed with visits to hospitalized children and home visits to grieving families in neighboring towns and cities. No trip seems too far if someone can be served. This past weekend, my hosts drove a six hour round trip journey so that a teen could enjoy a visit to the hospice following a hospital discharge post heart- transplant.

Over the past five years, I have joined the family in celebration of the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, decorated Christmas gingerbread cookies, accompanied them to church, fetched water with them from a natural spring, traveled with a theater troop visiting holy places throughout the country, played with Roma children in their neighborhood, and viewed many monuments such as the sculpture memorializing  the children of Lidice, murdered during World War II,  and the sculpture honoring Jan Palach, the young man who set himself on fire in martyrdom in Wenceslas Square during the Velvet Revolution. We have traveled to the far corners of the Republic, and visited neighboring Poland and Austria. With each visit, Marketa draws up a map and schedule to help orient me. 

We have explored curriculum, translated documents, done voiceovers for video, co-presented at global conferences, met with political leaders, and have appeared on local Czech TV.  We have driven countless hours in cars, vans and their iconic 1950’s bus, stopping for never-ending errands and house calls.  We have shared life stories, played music, laughed and cried (Well — I’VE cried!) and sat talking by the fireplace late into the night. 

And so perhaps this is the secret ingredient, the simple yet rare experience of being included in everyday family life while pursuing a shared vision, that ill children and families everywhere might feel witnessed and safe. What we wish for them is what I end up experiencing in a profound way.

What Am I Good At? Building Self Esteem through Play at Camp Klicek in the Czech Republic

Time to Explore:

The long days of summer, with the sun rising at 6:30 AM and setting close to 10:00 PM, lend themselves to unhurried, lengthy swatches of time. These hours can hold many opportunities for children and adults to engage in unfamiliar activities and discover new skills. Time for free play and exploration is a commodity during our workaday, technology-filled lives, but Camp Klicek in Malejovice, Czech Republic provides exactly this to children and families affected by illness and loss.

In the photo above, two seven-year-old boys get their hands on a saw, as they break down a tree branch in preparation for the campfire that all the campers will enjoy. Besides being fun, the boys are building their muscles and coordination, getting some great proprioceptive feedback, practicing cooperation and self regulation, not to mention problem solving. Their self esteem gets a healthy boost as they accomplish something new and contribute the the camp community. These are some of the attributes of spontaneous play that adults should take note of as we consider the developmental, social and emotional needs of all children

Structured Games

Sometimes structured games can lend themselves to learning through play that is so much fun that kids forget that they are learning. On this day, the campers were divided into three teams, and each team had four tasks to compete. They had to find a way to measure a liter of liquid, a kilo of sand, the length of a meter, and the span of a minute, all without the use of measuring devices. The camp was alive with children gathering sticks, pouring water, scooping sand into sacks and counting out loud and in their heads, as the teams competed to see who could get the closest to the actual measurement.

Group Play

On another day, volunteers from the Accace Corporation brought a day of activities to the campers. In the morning, they set up tables in the summer garden and mess tent, including paper arts and crafts, flower pot decorating, a drink mixing table with great recipes for virgin mojitos, margaritas and pina coladas, and a beauty salon station with face, body, and nail painting. Kids explored their artistic sides and wore their art with pride.

In the afternoon, the company volunteers set up an activity course in the forest, replicating what is entailed in working for a big company. My favorite station was the accounting department, where the employee had to take a fist-full of invoices and chase after the client to whack them with the papers to make them pay their bills!

And the other one I loved was a station where kids were taught the art of communication. They were told that communication is the lynchpin of success, and in order to practice communication skills, they had to stand on one side of an easel and describe a picture to their coworker on the other side, who had to paint of draw what that person was describing. It was a tough but very fun challenge for the kids.

In yet another station, the children ran through the forrest balancing cups of coffee they had made for their boss, trying to get to their boss’s office to sign power of attorney documents without spilling a drop.

Sharing Skills With Others

Many of the campers had their own skills to share and teach. Here are several of them, starting with an 18-year-old who made up a rap song on the spot.

One 14-year-old camper had a lot of skills, including bugle playing, fire breathing (So sad I didn’t get that on film!!), and archery. Here he is teaching another teen how to shoot a bow and arrow.

This young magician taught us all how to get a 100 Crown bill out from under a beer bottle without touching the money or the beer.

This artist created a virtual masterpiece depicting several scenes on one ceramic pot.

And even the youngest of the campers showed their talents. Whether it was my lunch-mate practicing his English, or a shy kid joining in on a new ly introduced American game of “Happy Salmon”, the kids never ceased to amaze me with their willingness to take risks, learn and share. I watched with admiration as this 6-year-old moved with the utmost patience and precision in a game of pick up sticks.

Nothing raises kids up to their potential the way play does. You can see the pride glowing as their self esteem grows by the second. And I feel so blessed to witness and participate in this play at Camp Klicek! Happy Summer!

Klicek Hospice Summer Camp: Kinderspiel Czech Style

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drawing by Markéta Královcová

A Diverse Community

My second stint as a volunteer at Camp Klicek in Malejovice, Czech Republic was as joyful and soul-filling as my time there last year.  The camp is special in many ways, but there are several unique facets that really stand out in my mind.  First, campers are encouraged to invite family and friends, and most campers have at least one sibling, parent, cousin or grandparent accompanying them. Most participants have been affected by an illness, developmental delay, death of a family member, poverty, racism, or incarceration. The campers range in age from one year to twenty-one (higher if you count the adults!) and come from such diverse backgrounds and situations that they form a very unlikely community of intersectionality.  This two-week summer camp brings together these widely varied individuals to partake in an environment steeped in nature, nutrition, community, and simplicity.

The Context of Nature

Children sleep in towering teepees and smaller tents constructed in a field behind the main house, a 100-year-old converted schoolhouse equipped with wheelchair access, hospital beds, and three working kitchens. The field harbors an orchard and several gardens that produce fruit and vegetables for meals and flowers that adorn each table in the mess tent. At breakfast, preserves made from this year’s crop of strawberries smother daily fresh bread from the bakery, accompanying homemade porridge with gingerbread crumble. Every meal is taken outside, and all campers gather several times a day for large group activities.

Real Play

The lengthy summer days, temperate climate, and loose structure of the day leave ample opportunity for the simple kinds of play that seem to be disappearing in today’s wave of technology. Campers are asked to turn in their cellphones each day, and are encouraged to find what they enjoy and make the most of each day. Whenever I offered to help out in the kitchen, I was instead encouraged to “Go play with the children. That is a better use of your time.” And so I too was free to enjoy the spontaneous kind of play that forms the building blocks of childhood.

Here are some examples:

Hand Games

I taught the kids how to play “Butcher Make the Meat Red”, a hand game where one player attempts to slap his opponent’s hands while the other player evades pain. They taught me how to play a finger counting game. Thumb wrestling and criss cross (patty cake) needed no translation.

Rough & Tumble Play

Kids don’t always get a chance to engage in gross motor rough housing play. Here they had plenty of opportunities for this without adult interference.

Feats of endurance:

Kids spontaneously tested their own strength and cheered one another on. Football (Soccer in America) and a Camp Klicek version of baseball (involving knocking over cans and running bases) are also popular.

Loose Parts Play

The children chose names for their teams (there were three teams for chores and competitions), and then found loose parts in nature to depict their team name. The foundation has an ocean theme running through it, which is hard to explain for a land-locked country. But the teams were encouraged to include this theme of being at sea in their chosen names. Here are the results.

“Rats from Below the Deck”

Mussel and Green Psychodogs

Nails on the Sea”

Forrests and Fields

There were many opportunities to walk and play in the neighboring forrest and fields, gathering campfire wood, building fairy houses, and searching for buried treasure.

Imaginative Play

Last but not least, the younger children explored toys, dressed up in princess garb, and played with music.

This smörgåsbord of play is a perfect real world representation of the lovely parting gift I received from Jiri and Marketa Kralovec upon my last day at camp: a print of Pieter Bruegel’s 16th century painting of Kinderspiele.

I came home filled to the brim with fresh air, incredible food, and most of all, play and excellent company. Thank you Camp Klicek!

Stay tuned for my next blog, where I continue to share camp photos and stories.

Palliative Care: the Art of Companionship

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Photo by Ludvik Hradilek

Jiri  and Marketa Kralovec have been serving families facing illness and loss for many years. Their work through the Klicek Foundation in the Czech Republic has brought palliative care to parents and children who in their most difficult hours, crave witnessing and gentle care as a family unit. Below is a statement of their philosophy, their humanity threading through it like gold.  Continue reading