Loved, not just Cared for

The building was formerly a center for hyperbaric treatment [experimental therapy using pressurized chambers to treat diseases]. Today, it offers advanced medical services, home-care, transport services, a hydrotherapy center, and soon a workshop. A Rehabilitation Center managed by Anffas, an association of families with members suffering from intellective and relational difficulties

by Piergiorgio Greco

“Now my wife and I have an overflowing will to live.” Antonio is a businessman in his fifties, married for over 25 years. His two children fill his life. They both suffer 100% disability. He recalls, “I don’t know how many times I hammered the steering wheel with my fists, after the specialists had assured me that the second child would be normal, but instead….” He pauses, lifts up his eyes, and repeats with conviction, “Today my wife and I are living a fullness of life that is contagious!” We are sitting beneath a willow tree that shelters us from the bland October sun, in this garden that adorns the Sant’Atto Rehabilitation Center, on the outskirts of Teramo, a stone’s throw from Gran Sasso, the mountain which looms majestically over this part of Abruzzo, keeping an almost fatherly watch. Antonio’s two daughters, Fiorenza and Daniela, are staying here, where they are treated, cared for, and loved. They smile as their father caresses them tenderly. “I owe my fullness of life to the encounter with the friends of Communion and Liberation, to this rehabilitation center, and to these people here,” he explains with emotion.

An association of families
With us in the shade of the willow are Ercole, Pierluigi, Massimo, and Mauro. They tell me, “Enzo couldn’t come because he has just had an operation, but he is one of us.” “Us” or “these people” are a group of friends who make up the Board of Directors of Anffas Teramo, a non-profit organization, the association of families that manages the semi-residential structure for the disabled in the former Sant’Atto center for hyperbaric treatment, which provides the most up-to-date rehabilitation services.
It’s a real gem, born two years ago out of the passion and tenacity of this group of friends, three of whom have disabled children. “When you find yourself facing the drama of disability,” Antonio says, “you realize that you are frighteningly alone. So you set out to find someone who wants to, and can, share this pain with you.” This often-disheartening search found an unexpected answer. So it was that Antonio met Ercole, who met Massimo, who met Enzo, who met Pierluigi, who met Mauro. A friendship was born that has lasted ten years. Some belong to CL; all of them are Christians or have returned to Christianity. In 1991, this “getting together” adopted the name Anffas Teramo, an association of families with members suffering from intellective and relational disabilities. In 1997, the group was evicted from its headquarters in central Teramo. “That was when we thought of taking over the former hyperbaric treatment center, a complex that some years before had housed a center for hyperbaric medicine, a precious national resource that was forced to close in 1992.”

Exponential growth
The wheel came full-circle in 1999. The local health authority offered the use of the building, the Cassa di Risparmio di Teramo Foundation (a cooperative savings bank) financed the project, and Anffas said it was ready to manage the structure.
From April 1, 2001, the day of the inauguration, until now, the Sant’Atto Institute has grown exponentially, and now provides 30,000 rehabilitation services every year. The structure, which has an excellent center for hydrotherapy and a valuable transport service, provides jobs for sixty-two people, including therapists, doctors, nurses, and administrative personnel, compared with only four when the project started. One sore point, albeit a sign of quality and of the widespread need, is the enormous waiting list. In short, in just two years, a real model of reference for the whole region has developed, destined to grow even more in the forthcoming months.

The inauguration
of La Piazzetta

So far we have spoken of health services, but Sant’Atto doesn’t stop there. In a few week’s time, a workshop, called “La Piazzetta,” will be inaugurated, a structure 500 yards away from the former hyperbaric center that will house a center for disabled youngsters with some rooms dedicated to productive activities. The workshop is situated in a former school building offered by the Bishop of Teramo, Vincenzo D’Addario, at the request of the local pastor, Fr Domenico Maraschi, and is the natural completion of the rehabilitation work carried out at the center. Antonio explains, “In these rooms, the disabled people who no longer need therapy can spend the afternoon in games, recreation, informatics, and theatrical activities; but above all they can learn job skills.” December will see the start of two courses of formation lasting 800 hours, for thirty disabled people. Massimo tells us, “Fifteen of them will learn to work with fabrics, and the other fifteen will learn to make beauty cases, overnight bags, and other leather goods. We are thinking of putting them on sale at the end of next year.”

Convention for Horse Therapy
Once again: A “chance” meeting with the head of the Teramo Faculty of Veterinary Medicine led to a tripartite convention involving the local heath authority, the university, and Anffas, for the realization of a center for hippotherapy [horse therapy], a mile away from the hyperbaric center. Finally, thanks to fifteen volunteers fulfilling their compulsory one-year national service requirement (through civil duty, in this case), the center is able to offer home-care services.
So there is an attention for the disabled that goes far beyond the rehabilitation phase, taking in social and formative stages. Ercole tells us, “As far as we are concerned, it’s not a question of a disabled person suffering from one pathology or another, just as it’s not a question of a disabled person living in the town or coming from far away. Though the costs are high, we go every day to fetch a boy who lives a few miles away from the town. And there is no difference between a disabled person fifteen years old or forty years old. This center is a story that involves people of all ages without discrimination. Before being someone with a handicap, a disabled person is a “whole” person who wants to be happy, wants to feel loved, not just taken care of. Sure, we know we cannot give an adequate answer to the expectations in the heart of these youngsters and their families, since it seems that many of these sufferings will end only with death. We ourselves feel that we are loved so much by the Mystery that we feel the need to go on with this enterprise.” The weekly meeting of the Board of Directors, during which questions are discussed and decisions made together, is the “guarantee” that Sant’Atto does not end up a utopian project. “Our unity produces realistic judgments and intelligent actions. Each one of us is indispensable in this history.”

Five loaves and two fish
A love for the person thus understood, an attention for this “unity” of the person, is a body-blow for some ways of understanding health and sickness today. This love can be born only from people who feel themselves loved, people who, in their turn, feel “united.” This is the secret of Sant’Atto. Ercole takes up the story again: “We are all aware that in all this we have put five loaves and two fish, nothing more. The multiplication was the work of Him who is present in our friendship.” In other words, a miracle that has moved everyone. And they are all aware that they cannot do without this friendship, this locus, the place where they feel they belong, in an age in which self-sufficiency is the highest ideal of life. This can be seen in the enthusiasm with which they tell their story, in the paternity they show for the patients in the center, and from the tact they use when, for example, they close a door or move an ashtray. It is a presence that spreads. A group of people made up of staff and patients meet every week for the School of Community; Giovanna Censoni, the medical director, and Paolo D’Angelo, the administrative director, are there, too.

What ties everything together
It is this belonging that produces the “unity,” as Antonio explains. “There is no separation between my work and this enterprise, because it’s not just my two daughters we have here; I am here, too, with my desire, and with these friends of mine who remind me that Christ is the Presence for whom it is worth working, laughing, rejoicing–or suffering, for my two daughters. Christ is what ties everything together: work, daughters, friends, these disabled people. Now,” he repeats, “my wife and I have a will to live that is overflowing!” “I have no children,” Mauro adds, “but after my years of national service with Anffas I realized that I could no longer do without these friends, without this history and this task. Although I could have gone on living my life peacefully, just doing my job in the bank, I decided to go on working on the Anffas Board of Directors, carrying on this history which has become the history of my life.”

A woman of remarkable class
While Ercole, Antonio, Massimo, Pierluigi and Mauro were introducing the personnel to me and proudly showing me around the rehabilitation center, I met Angela, a woman of remarkable class. Multiple sclerosis is slowly consuming her smile, but all the same she didn’t miss the chance to tell me what Sant’Atto means for her. “My coming here was a dream come true. The social workers who came to me at home treated me like a piece of furniture to be dusted. Here it is quite different, thanks to these ‘devils’”, she said, glancing at the other patients and the therapists. “I discovered the eternal value of every instant that God gives me, even in this wheelchair.” It came to me spontaneously to ask her, “You are living the experience of pain; are you afraid of the future?” “The future for me,” she replied, “is the present I am living. The joy of the present that I am living.” She turns towards Ercole and whispers, “Thanks to you I rediscovered this joy of living.” A little further over is Arturo, a boy with Down’s Syndrome who until two years ago didn’t open his mouth. “Show Piergiorgio what you can do,” Ercole tells him with a smile. He doesn’t waste time, and after a moment’s concentration sings in a true tenor voice, “Volare oh oh…”