During the school Spring break at the beginning of this month, I traveled south to Tata, a beautiful oasis town, to work at “Ability Camp.” It is near Algeria and has a spectacular palm grove. Before the camp started, I had a chance to explore. We said we were going on a walk for 30 minutes before dinner, but ended up spending 3 hours there! I also brought back delicious dates! Check it out on Google for its location and photos!
Tata has a large Berber or Amazigh population. Amazigh people are the indigenous, non-Arab people of North Africa. They speak a different language and historically are non-Muslim. I felt like I was in a different country in Tata because people mainly spoke in Tamazight (one of the three main Amazigh languages) and dressed differently than in Marrakesh. Men wear a blue robe and turbans and Amazigh women in Tata wear brightly colored skirts and black shawls. I‘d like to to write a blog post about the Amazigh people of Morocco once I learn more about them.
I decided to sign up for Ability camp because I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to gain more experience working with people with special needs. The camp was organized by Abby, one of the Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs) in Tata. She works with a special needs association called “Association Hope,” and this is their third annual camp. This year’s camp focused on integration and volunteerism.
There were about sixty campers between the ages 12-20, twenty Moroccan volunteers/counselors, and ten PCVs from all over Morocco at the Ability Camp. Twenty of the campers had a range of undiagnosed physical and mental disabilities including muscle dystrophy, deafness, Down syndrome, autism, etc. Most of kids came from Tata or nearby duars (farming villages).
It was an intense six days! The counselors also slept with the campers at the girls and boys boarding school (where the camp was held) so there was no time to rest. We became a big family by the end of the second day.
In the mornings after breakfast, staff led workshops on inclusion, communication, with a focus on abilities. The latter was my favorite workshop because I think it’s true we all have our strengths and weaknesses. We just need to bring out the positive in everyone! Then before lunch and the heat (Abby said in the summer the temperature soars to 120° F!), we played sports in the gym, planted trees at the middle school and high school, or painted sidewalks around town. I really enjoyed working on the community service projects. It was touching to see everyone work hand in hand on the projects.
After lunch and quiet time, we offered art and science activities. I organized environmental and recycled arts activities with my best friend, Jamie, a PCV based in Fez. For the environmental arts activity, we had the kids collect objects outside and make nature drawings though none of them picked up any garbage! The room ended up smelling like flowers! For the recycled arts activity, we made flowers out of toilet paper rolls and barbeque sticks. I think the kids really enjoyed these activities. At the end of the camp, we discussed the importance of art and they all agreed that it’s extremely therapeutic. For example, it helped them to relax after the sports activities and refocus.
After a couple of girls fainted from the heat, a PCV, Leanna, and Moroccan volunteer Youssef, a trained Red Crescent (Red Cross equivalent) volunteer, led a workshop on first aid. We also had police come in and talk about road safety.
Ability Camp was one of my most rewarding Peace Corps experiences thus far. I was able to visit another beautiful area of Morocco, make new friends, and work on an extremely necessary project. There is not much understanding about disabilities in Morocco, particularly in remote areas like Tata, nor specialized services. For example, persons with mental disabilities are called “crazy” and persons with special needs mostly stay at home. Schools do not have special needs programs so it’s associations like “Association Hope” that work with them.
I know that we made an impact through the Ability Camp because everyone learned how to respect each other regardless of their abilities. Hopefully they will model these behaviors outside of the camp.
After this intense, fun, and extremely rewarding experience, I’m inspired to work with special needs individuals in my community here and perhaps after the Peace Corps.