Discovering La Baraque

In 1996 & 7 I'd either jump to my feet or crawl out of bed at 8.30am after a night of belgium beer swilling in an underground car park style night club to teach or support either an art and expression, ceramics or bakery class.

I'd drag myself out of bed, buy a waffle in the underpass for breakfast -  but always make sure that my feet had climbed the steep wooden stairs of an old farmhouse building the other side of Louvain la Neuve's campus by 9.00am.

When we arrived in Belgium, our supervisor gave us the opportunity to choose for ourselves whether to take exams. He offered us the opportunity to pick or choose any combination of courses we wanted from the entire 200 course Baccalaureat syllabus. With no inherent structure, no Internet, just a pedestrianised campus town with unusually quiet weekends,  we started  a trial and error sampling of ways to earn holiday travel money, learn something different and discover for ourselves which interests would stick.

An autumn of bar work, babysitting, beer event marketing, vingt quatre heures velo, cognitive neuroscience in a foreign language, chinese, sport psychology, educational psychology, volunteering, sport and Belgian carnivals on top of the usual student socials slowly subsided into a calmer, less frenetic spring and summer.  We skipped some lectures, took a few clandestine adventures around Europe, and sampled the country's finest beers and carnivals.

So it turned out that my three things that stuck from 1997 were La Baraque, Chinese and climbing.


La Baraque

La Baraque was and is still a centre for activities  (I guess in the UK it'd be known as day services or a modernised day centre) for adults. Their website is called New Horizons - It introduces la Baraque, La Serpentine, La Cognee and La Lisere - La Baraque is an old farmhouse with a new extension, whilst the accommodation like la Serpentine was architected in a similar fashion to our student shared accomodation or 'kots' - well perhaps a bit more homely and spacious but a stone's throw away. The residences took part in campus art trails and there were kot-a-project student initiatives supporting and organising social activities.

What started out as a bit of bread making, pottery and art became a really strong appreciation for asbl's philosophy and their way of working - how much attention they gave to providing the right kinds of support to people, the emphasis given to individually chosen projects or providing the right kind of independence or support, as well as well as the social collective support staff, residents and students lent each other.  In art and expression, themes sometimes connected artwork together. We had beautiful artist materials at our disposal, half of which I didn't know the french names for.   Around Easter we marketed a foire artisanle in the neighbouring villages and towns with posters and flyers - tents and marquees went up in the main square - everyone pitched in but with different activities - food, posters, flyers, paintings, craft and ceramics stalls - the University square was covered and hours of atelier work & expression were on show to students, locals, friends, project kots.

I sometimes read reports on Mencap, like one called stuck at home - about the impact of day service cuts, highlighting the heavy impact of cuts and increased charging for services that leave people isolated, lonely and scared about the future.

Person centred and user centred strategies are good strategies for seeing a problem from somebody else's perspective or for tailoring activities to suit real world needs.  But for person centred planning to work, people often also need social structures and frameworks in place, not just free will. The stuck at home report showed that over half (57%) of people with a learning disability known to social services do not receive any day service provision at all, compared to 48% in 2009/10. If this was because they were now in formal training or jobs then great but the report also shows that 1 in 4 people with a learning disability responding to a Mencap online survey spend less than one hour outside of their home everyday.

The report showed that 1 in 3 local authorities have cut day services provision. What I appreciated about asbl's business model was that it was not just about service, it's also about creativity, innovation and enterprise - bakery, recycling, ceramics and about communications - journalism, events marketing...and there are so many great small examples of this in the UK too.  It's about inclusive  opportunities to write, create, make, sort, grow, choose if to get between home and work by minibus or on foot, participate in social and leisure activities and all that person centred stuff - but also about the benefits of being involved in a wider social framework such as that provided in Belgium by kots-a-project,  aspects of University life and the architectural design thinking that went into the build of a completely new and pedestrianised campus town.