Volunteering At A Camp For Handicapped Children In Abkhazia

This week we head back on the road for our reader-contributed story. This one is sent in from Minnesotan Torry Swedberg:

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Torry shares about his experiences last October volunteering with handicapped children in Abkhazia.

South of Russia, north of the Middle East, Abkhazia exists in an overlooked region of the world known as the Caucuses.

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Map of Georgia with Abkhazia in green

Torry Swedberg, himself having spina bifida, learned about this part of the world and the unique challenges of the disabled who live here.

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Last October I had the opportunity to join my brother and three other Americans on a mission’s trip to Abkhazia. This is a small country* next to Georgia on the Black Sea. The purpose of our trip was to work at a camp for disabled children in the area. Our organization SOAR International made the connection to this camp in 2014 when our volunteers met its director at the Winter Olympic Games in nearby Sochi, Russia.

The camp was held at a resort that was right along the Black Sea near the city of Gagra in northwest Abkhazia.

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Riding into Gagra (snapshot from a Youtube video)

This area was tropical. I will tell you that it was beautiful–not at all what I expected. It was warm and wonderful.

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Unexpected cactus plant

The resort was lovely, but not as luxurious as most Americans would expect from a seaside resort. Here was the bathroom my brother I had in our room:

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Nonetheless, the natural beauty more than made up for any differences in lodging.

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Scenery at the camp
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On the Black Sea coast with fellow campers. Instead of sand, it was a beach of pebbles.

There were about 40 campers ages 8-14.  About half of them were in wheelchairs. I would say that the primary disability presented itself as cerebral palsy. Along with the disabled students were some of their siblings, parents, and the area churches provided volunteers as well.

During the week, we basically held a Bible camp. After breakfast (usually porridge), we held group time with the students. After lunch (we ate a lot of chicken and borscht), we spent time outside with the students playing games.

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Others looked on:

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Campers playing with Legos. They LOVED the Legos we brought them.

In the evening we would watch a movie.

Of the 150 people that were there (besides the five of us from the US) only about eight of them spoke English. Yet during this week I met some really nice people. I met a woman named Anna and her son Uman.

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Uman was one of the campers. Anna lived in the Abkhazian capital city of Sukhumi. She is a television reporter and so spoke very good English. We had many meals together. Through our conversations, I learned a lot about the country and the people. She shared that disabled people there are shunned and that this camp is really the only fun thing that she and her son will be able to do because of that. I’d learn that even as adults, disabled people are treated this way.

We had a dance party one night. It was so much fun to watch these students having a good time. During this party we handed out candy we had brought. It was fun to give that to them, too. We donated about 10 pounds of candy to the camp.

We also donated some hardware…

As I said before, about half of them were in wheelchairs. But some of these “chairs” were actually strollers, because that really is all that they could afford. One mother arrived to camp carrying her daughter who looked to be about 10. Her legs were permanently bent.

As part of this mission, we had partnered with the nonprofit Joni and Friends, who sent a cargo container by ship containing wheelchairs for the campers. We donated a wheelchair to this mother so that she would not have to carry her child wherever she went. The mother asked how much it cost, and when we told her it was a gift, she broke down into tears.

Going on this trip was amazing; I learned a few different things. First of all, kids are kids no matter where they are and need to be loved for who they are.

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Camper enjoying a toy we brought.

I was also able to see the different struggles disabled people in other countries deal with. I learned to be grateful for the healthcare that we do have in America.

Finally, I learned that much can be accomplished when people come together to help one another.

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Camp participants

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SOAR International is a mission organization based in Kenia, Alaska that works with the Russian people. If you have any questions about SOAR or this trip, go to their website or reach out to Torry at swedberg.torry@gmail.com

If you’d like to share a travel story on The Periphery, please email me at Brandon@ThePeriphery.com.  We’d love to hear all about your adventure.

*Abkhazia’s claim of autonomy is disputed. Georgia, as well as most other nations (including the US), consider Abkhazia as part of Georgia. 

What say you?