In most cases, going on a family vacation is a question of packing the bags, booking an accommodation and hopping on a plane. The biggest worry is whether the sun shines and the flip-flops are in the suitcase. But it isn’t this simple for everybody. If a child has a disability or special needs, finding a suitable holiday home can be very hard. Centre Algarve, a holiday centre for people with special needs located in Moncarapacho, makes sure that everyone can enjoy this gorgeous region.
See original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine August 2015
“Family holidays are when memories are made,” says Tom Willis (55), one of the managers of Centre Algarve. “I remember all the ones back from when I was a kid, happy times visiting new places with my parents.” Nowadays, there are accommodations for every type of traveller: kid-friendly hotels that specially cater for families with round the clock entertainment, tree huts high up in the mountains for active travellers, and even booze cruise party boats, targeted towards the youngsters whose main goal it is to get drunk and dance. But strangely enough, there’s no holiday centre especially designed for children with special needs and their families. Up until now, this group seems to be forgotten on the vacation front, even though it is estimated that 10% of all children have some sort of (learning) disability or special need, ranging from Down’s syndrome to cerebral palsy and from hyperactivity to behavioural challenges.
Centre Algarve is the only place in Europe especially designed for these kids
The Centre Algarve, which will open soon as it’s waiting for the last stamp of official approval, is the only place in Europe especially designed for these kids, no matter how severe their disability, as well as for their siblings and parents. “Up until now these families had nowhere else to go,” Tom says. “As a result, they mostly stayed at home. Because if your child is disabled or has special needs, you usually don’t fit into the mainstream places. Yes, with a child in a wheelchair -although you’ll most likely encounter accessibility issues- people will usually be understanding. You’ll get sympathy. However, what if you have a 15-years-old with a mental age of 4? Although your daughter looks like a regular 15-years-old, she might go into frenzy in a restaurant, screaming and throwing things on the floor, just because it’s a bit too crowded for her liking. If this happens, people look at you strange and aren’t that understanding. As a result, many of these parents don’t bother going on vacation.”
In the Centre, no one will look strange if a child gets agitated. It’s adapted not only towards physical disabilities, but also towards mental ones. In the sensory room, padded walls, nice sounds and changing lighting make for a relaxing environment. The animals outside also play a big part. The lush green garden is home to many species, ranging from potbellied pigs to tricoloured squirrels and from peacocks to owls; it even has its own petting zoo. “Some children don’t communicate with other people at all, but they will speak to the tortoises or the meerkats. Animals have a calming effect on them,” Guy Gibson (47), another manager of the Centre, explains. A few of the animals are disabled too: one of the owls only has one eye and Bambina, the goat, misses her front legs. “Adults might find this a shocking sight, but the kids can actually relate to it. Most children don’t have the same issues with disability as their parents do.” Bambina the goat seems happy enough, making her way across the green grass.
600 volunteers have turned a building site into a holiday resort
When walking around the centre, taking in the well-equipped rooms and the American diner themed kitchen, it’s hard to imagine that five years ago, this place was a building site. Over 600 volunteers have worked hard to turn it into a holiday resort. Currently, there’s only place for six volunteers at the time as the other 16 rooms are for guests. Below are two rooms with an interconnecting hygiene room, kitted out with an overhead hoist, shower with flip-down stool, wet bed, a second shower and a toilet with grab rails. “All this equipment might not be used very often, but you really need it if someone is severely disabled,” says Guy as he puts the harness on the hoist which can move everywhere in the bathroom, making a shower possible whatever the circumstances. Needless to say, door opening are wide enough for wheelchairs and on ground level, all access is level. Other room facilities include special beds that lift in all directions and washing machines, in case visitors suffer from incontinence.
“Some people wonder why we don’t have on site nurses or carers as well,” Guy comments, before explaining why this doesn’t make sense. “First, many disabled people won’t be able to get here or even get onto a plane without the help of their carers. Another main reason is that the regular carers know the person better. We’ve had a man visiting who was severely disabled and could hardly speak. His own carers can communicate with him by means of body language and signals; they know exactly what he means and needs.”
Outside, all visitors will be able to enjoy the Algarve sunshine, as also the swimming pool comes with a seated hoist (currently there’s one being made for the jacuzzi too). “Hydrotherapy is especially good for people in wheelchairs,” says Tom, as he demonstrates the lift. With swimming pools, gardens with raised flower beds, animals and a big kitchen for those who want to self-cater, there is no need to leave the venue during the holiday. But for those who do want to explore the Algarve, it’s good to know that Tom has had positive experiences. “Many local little restaurants we’ve visited with groups in the East Algarve are very accommodating. I was pleasantly surprised by this, as I know a guy from Finland who organises sports trips in Portugal for 16 to 22-years-olds with special needs, and hotels don’t accommodate for them at all. As soon as they found out his group of teenagers had mental issues, they told him they were fully booked. Sometimes the attitude here towards disability is still a bit backwards.” However, many organisations are doing the best they can. “Zoomarine has been fantastic; they offer huge discounts if we come with groups and they’re used to having disabled people visit, so they’re very accessible.”
If the kids enjoy themselves, the parents can relax as well
During the school year, the Centre will have groups of school kids coming over, but in the summer months it’ll only be visited by families. “Seeing as all of these families will have a child with special needs, they can support each other and share advice. And if the kids enjoy themselves, the parents can relax,” Tom concludes. “It’s also nice for the siblings. If their 16-years-old brother with a special need decides to take his swimming trunks off in a normal hotel pool, other guests might say ‘hey, this isn’t right’, or they’ll point and talk. This could be embarrassing for the brothers and sisters. Here, it doesn’t matter: everyone’s in the same boat.”
Want to help?
There are many ways you can support the Centre Algarve. One of them is volunteering; current volunteers Romy (24) and Lindsey (27) recommend this wholeheartedly. “It’s great as you’ll meet people from all over the world.” Volunteers should be able to work at the Centre for at least 28 days so they can get to grips with the work and the routine. There are all sorts of tasks to be done; Romy and Lindsey work with the animals which fits in perfectly with Romy’s college studies of animal management.
Before applying as a volunteer, realise there’s quite a long waiting list as the Centre Algarve receives 4 to 5 applications per day. If you already live in the area and don’t need accommodation at the Centre, then there isn’t a waiting list.
Also it’s possible to support the Centre Algarve by means of making a donation or sponsoring a bedroom or animal. Interested? Have a look on their website: www.centrealgarve.org
See original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine August 2015