Determination, hard work and a lot of love

TODAY, THE Associação Cultural e de Apoio Social de Olhão (ACASO), an association of cultural and social support, is a spacious, well maintained, friendly and loving centre for mentally handicapped and elderly people of Olhão. However, this has not always been the case, as ACASO started from humble roots more than 70 years ago, writes The Resident’s Louise Pimm.

Founded in 1932 by two dedicated women, ACASO began life as a one building institution, providing only food and shelter for those members of society who had been shunned and abandoned. Located in Olhão, one of the poorest cities in the Algarve, the two founders fought to turn ACASO into what it is today – a permanent home to around 300 mentally ill men and women whose families rejected them because they were different.

Under the umbrella title of ‘instituição’, or institution, ACASO offers a caring home to people suffering from mental health illnesses, while a separate building, the Centro Social do Brejo, houses the elderly. Within the complex, alongside residential rooms, are classrooms, a dining area, a hairdresser, administration offices, foundations for a new swimming pool and a sports hall which ACASO also offers to local schools, allowing children to take part in music, drama and sporting activities, otherwise unavailable to them.

The complex also provides shelter and day care for children from communities suffering from economical and social problems, thus offering support to more than 3,000 people every day. For that, they have the support of 179 members of staff, both volunteers and full-time workers.

My guides for the day were Hermínia Graça, the president of ACASO, and Brian Pereira, a volunteer for Associação de Solidariedade com as Crianças Carenciadas do Algarve (ACCA), an association that supports children in need living in the Algarve. Walking into ACASO, I felt the happy atmosphere hit me straight away. Any predetermined ideas I had of institutions were quickly dispelled, as it was like walking into someone’s home.

The feeling of warmth is mainly due to the fact that the carers become family to the residents, the majority of whom have no communication with their own families, who have been unable to come to terms with their son’s and daughter’s differences.

At the centre, I was introduced to a man who has been living there since childhood. He is now 30 years old and his story is all too common: the Assistência Social (the Portuguese equivalent of Social Services) contacted ACASO after seeing the conditions in which his parents had kept him. He was put in a chicken hutch when he was a baby, and that is where he grew up. When he was too big for the hutch, they moved him into a kennel. When he arrived at ACASO, he could not talk, stand up straight and ate from the floor. Now, he can stand but communication is difficult and, when mealtime comes, he instinctively reverts back to his childhood posture, cowering on the floor.

As we walked through the building, Hermínia would hug each and every one we met. Having a handicapped child herself, she knows the importance of physical contact, positivity and love for the people at ACASO. Each member of staff is aware of this too, as they chat and laugh with the residents. Sometimes, a smile and wink is all that is needed to give reassurance – the reactions from the residents are priceless.

The classrooms at ACASO are full of colour. They have pictures, paintings and weavings covering the walls – they are like primary school classrooms. Although the creations may take weeks to complete, the detail and precision is of the highest quality. The teachers not only help to create the amazing arts and crafts, but work with so much love that they also teach their pupils happiness, appreciation and fun.

While I was there, a birthday celebration was taking place. Resident José Casimiro had turned 24. Wheelchair bound and mentally handicapped, he was delighted to hear everyone sing ‘Feliz Aniversário’ (Happy Birthday) while he carried on making another colourful creation.

With so many people to care for, ACASO is in dire straits regarding finance. Although they receive financial aid from the Portuguese government, it is not enough to provide constant care to those who arrive needing help and comfort. However, at ACASO, nobody is miserable – that’s not the state of mind. They are committed to loving and caring for those in need of shelter, food and a family – that is the ethos which built ACASO and will keep it going for years to come.

• If you would like to help ACASO’s cause, contact Brian Pereira on 919 413 339 or e-mail [email protected]; or Jane Oliphant from ACCA on 919 383 593.