By Steven Crowe. 2nd year BACY student
On our trip to Rotterdam we witnessed a variety of different areas of social care and social work, and the university had kindly set up visits to a variety of different organisations and settings to get a feel for some of the work that is being done in and around Rotterdam. For myself as a residential worker, the prospect of going to see how residential care can be delivered in the Netherlands was too tempting an offer to miss. So we made our way to Alphen Aan Den Rijn (that’s on the Rhine to you and me) To a place called RijnHove, run by an organisation called Horizon.
What immediately struck me from the beginning was the sheer scale of space in the environment. The community was set within and around the vast acres of Rijnstroom (Rhine Flow) Park, a place in itself which had a large historical background in the care of children, having been developed as part of the Christian backed “Martha Foundation” to look after uncared for children and orphans, which by the early 1900s was already housing almost 1,000 young people on land that included schools, churches, orchards, farmland and workshops.
Whilst many of the buildings that were built through the 20th Century have been subsequently rebuilt or relocated for modern purposes, much of its story can still be seen. The manager showed us one of the remaining buildings which, whilst now operating as a building for theatre and arts, was once a large scale childrens home, containing church and school, and with residents being housed and cared for in large dormitories by the Nuns.
Currently, the Residential community is set within adjacent parkland, and still holds the same lush, tranquil, leafy characteristics of the public park – the trees old, healthy and developed, the various ponds and streams interconnected by bridges and gentle pathways was a delight to see in such a space, being well maintained by the gardeners and the young people. It provided a beautiful backdrop for the facilities themselves, and I don’t think I could stop myself from looking around smiling and taking a few snaps of the place, like some kind of residential care tourist. The environment felt like nothing I have seen or experienced in social care thus far, and, whilst it did still have the making of a more institutional feel (signs for different buildings, advert / signs for the company itself told you what this space was for), it was minimal and impinged little on the outside space. I’m glad we caught it on a sunny day.
The site contained multiple homes, being able to house over 100 young people at any given time. Some of the homes accommodated for specific needs – from those considerer especially vulnerable to exploitation and needing additional support, all the way to young people who were on a more semi-independent living basis, receiving less support from the workers and potentially close to moving on into their own slice of the world. We were also shown homes in which foster carers (including the manager who showed us around) would live alongside and look after the children permanently within this community also, in houses of 7 young people or more. This was all built within an environment which also contained educational, vocational (such as workshops and kitchens), sports and recreational facilities, and was well connected to other facilties – one young person in particular spoke of their enthusiasm for going to the stables nearby.
On entering the homes, I was far more aware of the residential care that I was more accustomed to, and it was set with a good space for group living, as well as the young people’s individual rooms and adult space (office, sleep in room). I was surprised that there was little adorning the young people’s walls, however – in most homes I had worked in, the young people’s rooms were as personalised as could be – choosing the colour of their walls, ensuring that they had the freedom to put up pictures, posters where they so choose, vast arrays of teddies – a way perhaps to make it ‘their’ room. Yet, the rooms were more standardised here, somewhat less personalised, and with less space allowed for their own things on the walls. Some of the potential reasons were given to me – that the young people were moving rooms a lot (some were bigger than others), that accommodation was often more temporary (a maximum of two years), or simply a matter of money in considering continuous redecoration. Regardless, it was an interesting contrast, and despite this, the young persons room we were invited into still had all the signs of personality and creativity, just maybe less glaringly obvious – a big box of paints, some of her artwork (see below), some Minnie mouse ears from her recent holiday spoke volumes about her without the need for it to be adorned across her walls.
It was interesting also to see the transition from the open, public, parkland to the privacy of the children’s homes which were within just a few paces away from each other – no gates, no doors, and it was clear that the space was easily accessible, open, and free to movement, both by the public and residents. Much of the area on the other side of the community was bordered by a moat of sorts, ensuring that there was only so many ports of entrance. In many ways, this seemed like a good way in which to create a certain level of boundary between this inner community and the outer community, perhaps helping to alleviate some of the issues that can potentially come with such freedoms – in particular, it was seen that drug dealing and their usage were often a problem brought into the project. I wondered, however, if this moated area felt the same for the young people – or, particularly as it was built around the school area, if it sometimes felt more enclosing and restrictive, a barrier to freedoms. At times it looked like a space between two different worlds.
Conversations often suggested a level of ambiguity in the relationship between this community and the general public – on one hand, there were various ways of trying to reach out and engage with the community, such as local charity fundraising through door to door sales, and opening up a restaurant space at the school once a week, for the public, which the young people would help prepare, cook and serve the meals. But, on the other hand, the clarity and proximity could cause issues, and certainly, issues with anti social behaviour within the surrounding neighbourhood, or simply prejudice, put the young people at risk of being labelled and stigmatised, or, in more extreme cases, exploited.
I have been speaking about the environment and space, and I haven’t even begun to mention the various young people and professionals that we met in our trip to RijnHove, who met us with hospitality, kindness and attentiveness, were happy to express their thoughts and feelings of the community and answer our questions. We met very articulate (in English!) young people and very hard workers, who clearly cared about their work – so much so that some even chose to live here, fostering children also in their ‘time off’. Nor did I mention the technicalities and the difference in approach, ethos, and professionals – particularly the split between the school and residential provision. But perhaps that is for another post.
As a comparison to my own work in residential care, this seemed, environmentally at the very least, a large shift from my own experiences. Having worked in many more intimate, urbanised settings – houses like any other down a street, or large foyers and projects designed to maximise space, but at a loss to the natural environment – the sheer space of land, particularly green area, that was available around the project was very impressive. It really felt like its own suburb – a community within the community. The potential of such a place in a time when funding for social care and social work is ever tightening leaves much to the imagination of what can and could be, and left me inquisitive and excited – are there any comparisons to be made in the UK of such a space? Talking to one of the workers he explained that such projects like this were also rare in the Netherlands. But for a place steeped in historic relevance and nurtured natural beauty, to me this showed an environment that could potentially provide an incredible space for any child to grow up – looked after or otherwise.