Some years back, Andrea de Vaal Horciu took a group of children with disabilities to the petting zoo at the Canberra Show. When they got up close with the animals, Andrea turned around to notice everyone else had disappeared and she and her group were the only ones left.
“I looked around and saw that everyone had moved away and were watching us, like we were the ones in the zoo,” she said. “I guess we looked a bit different but I am around disability so much that I don’t notice it anymore. But I do remember this day when people just stood and stared.”
If there was one blessing, she said, it was that the children didn’t realise they were being stared at.
Caring for people with disabilities and their families is Andrea’s life. As the Director of Embracing Ministries, a Canberra-based group, and Disability Chaplain for Anglicare, it’s just what she does.
Although Embracing Ministries was established by the Anglican Diocese of Goulburn and Canberra in 2016, it cares for whoever needs it, regardless of religion.
It offers a variety of programs for children with disabilities as well as their families, from trips away to counselling, alone time to drumming workshops, anything that will make life easier.
But the most important lesson, according to Andrea, is to show the children they are loved.
“There was one example where children with disabilities weren’t allowed to go on a Christian camp just because they were different,” she said.
“It is so important for us to understand the diversity of humanity and that everyone needs to feel that they’re loved.
“So I began organising these holiday programs, involving both disabled and mainstream kids because it was important for both groups to work together, to better understand each other, to not be afraid.
“It’s also about learning to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak.”
Originally from Liverpool in the United Kingdom, Andrea worked around the world before coming to Australia. She has helped street children in Romania and worked in a hospital for children living with HIV AIDS – wherever she was needed.
She recalls arriving in Australia and getting her first job – eight hours’ work with people with disabilities.
“I had just arrived and I had a real fear about how to communicate with people I didn’t understand,” Andrea said.
“Then I realised all I had to do was just get to know them and remember that for every person with a disability, there’s a whole group, a family that needs to be cared for too. You need to care for the siblings too, they may feel embarrassed or alone.”
This is where Embracing Ministries’ programs come in. The trips away, the days off for parents, anything that makes a difference for the better in all the affected lives.
“People are so kind to us,” Andrea said. “There’s a lady down the coast who gives us her house four times a year to use. It’s great for parents who may just need a rest, just somewhere where they can have a break, get some sleep.”
For Andrea, her work is not a job, it’s a passion – and a calling.
She’s always on call, working with a team of less than half a dozen people to help more than 100 families.
“We have wonderful people who help us,” she says, “but everyone gets tired, it’s tough. This year we’ve had four babies die. In disability, that’s what happens. But when babies die it becomes very real.”
How does she cope?
“I once lived in a convent,” she said. “I wasn’t a nun, but I lived there … it was a silent place. I just look after myself – I’m cared for.”
If there’s any help she does need it’s volunteers – people who can devote some time working with the children, helping to make life a better place for them.
What makes a good volunteer?
“Someone who listens,” she says, “and someone who cares.”
Anyone interested in volunteering with Embracing Ministries can call Andrea on 0404 256 714.