In Piña we trust
I volunteered 6 months in Piña Palmera. During this time my vision shifted from the initial expectations of a wonderful place to the blunt reality of a tainted fruit. After months of harsh discussions between volunteers and the management I can say that the guideline is: “read the Volunteer Manual“, so if you are considering a volunteering in Piña Palmera and wondering what to expect please read the Volunteer Manual and most important read only that, ignore any other part of the website or any oral or written communication you might have with Piña Palmera because you are not equipped to put them into a context, what’s said in Piña makes sense in Piña. The Volunteer Manual describes thoroughly the daily life you’ll have, nothing more and more important nothing less: a mild self-inflicted slavery. Once you overcome that it is very easy to have a good time here. Zipolite is a beautiful beach with a laid back and hippie atmosphere, always sunny and hot, the working hours are relaxed and the people are usually friendly and welcoming, so if you can estrange yourself from what you’re doing and simply comply whatever you’re being told then this place is your perfect match and now you can close this boring and rambling article. However if you have instead any quirk in rehabilitation, disability, community and rational thinking I invite you to keep reading.
Since the start Piña Palmera aroused conflicting feelings in me, on the one hand an inner beauty enlightens the place, on the other hand every little thing lacks meaning and perspective, it took me a month to focus the problem: her name is Flavia Ester Anau, General Coordinator of Piña Palmera. In Piña one person controls every aspect of its life: from funding to administration, rehabilitation strategy to communication, watering plants etc. She is the one who rules it and that is why every area is flawed and paralyzed from negligence and incompetence.
Here are my observations about the most critical faults in her management.
She introduced the CBR (Community Based Rehabilitation) into Piña and made it its standard practice. But since she has no background in physiotherapy or any clinical approach it turned it into the version of CBR that the Pink Panther could do: a very dumb form of entertainment. From a legal standpoint Piña is liable. Their use of the word “rehabilitation” is erroneous as instead they offer a generic socialization activity. This is a fraud. Like a placebo Piña’s CBR only works with those who don’t need it and among the others every child that Piña doesn’t help is a saved one. I didn’t want to be accomplice so I refused to participate in any activities CBR related confining myself to other tasks.
The special care unit (Cuidados Especiales) is another complete stranger to her. Once the 4 residents are bathed, changed and fed they are just parked until 6 pm when they are laid down again for 16 hours. There is no schedule of daily activities and volunteers are forbidden to propose any. After a while their constant abandonment might give you the idea that they are just a legacy from an old Piña, kept alive to milk money from the Government or the Swedish Friends. Also the special care unit serves for intended didactical purposes during their workshops. When this will happen take a deep breath and remember that it’s your wounded dignity talking and that is not entirely true.
She has been running Piña for more than 20 years and never developed any strategic business plan, it is unbelievable that with the resources Piña received and the number of professionals who have passed through it has only managed to cover 5% of the budget through its own means. As of today the most efficient income source is a bake sale exactly like 20 years ago and I still can’t figure out where the 250.000 € donations go every year, it is no surprise that the “transparency” page on the official website just contains rubbish.
The communication area is really her thing, she has the theatrical act that only sociopaths and door-to-door sellers have. After everyone of her speeches I get the “chinese restaurant syndrome”: first I am not sure whether they fed me chicken or an alley cat, then I wonder why I feel like starving even if I just ate like a pig and finally the vomit and diarrhoea marathon starts. With workers, volunteers and any other human interactions I witnessed she fluctuates between low level manipulation and the iron fist, following techniques from Human Resources Managers of big corporations, not exactly what I expected to find in a small community based NGO. I’m sure she has a wonderful “humble act” too, unfortunately I never got the pleasure to see her dealing with an affluent donor.
The weekly general meetings are a mandatory ritual where she parades her undisputed power while her minions gather in a primitive circle and entertain the Empress with a sad pantomime. In her defence I admit that general meetings are probably the most ineffective decision process in the history of mankind so in this case, putting aside the humiliation to those forced to participate, it is more about an aesthetic statement than anything else.
She is responsible for the foreign relations and doesn’t speak a word of English in an organization that still depends for more than 30 % on donations from abroad. She is also ignorant about everything happened after Windows 95 and the amateur presence of Piña Palmera on the internet is self-explanatory.
The vision about disability that Flavia established in Piña is underdeveloped and valueless. As a volunteer I assisted many “sensibilization workshop” and it made me sick that for both children and adults the level of questions for the audience was always “how do you think you can help a disabled person in your daily life?” or “do you think that the disabled should be put in special schools or in the normal ones?” or the conceited explanation that “we say person with disability and not disabled person because this is how we recognize his dignity”. Yes sure. More than once I had the temptation to interrupt this sad spectacle and ask the audience: “why do you think disability is disturbing, unsettling, unattractive? What are the education and politically correctness trying to cover up? Could it be the fact that meeting with disability opens a secret window on your deepest secluded fears: to be weak, needy, unaccepted, undesired, inadequate, misunderstood, alone? Could it be the fear that all your best efforts and expectations are vain?” Maybe, who knows. In my personal vision disability is just one of the million reasons to feel like an alien in the wrong planet waiting for the mothership to take me home. Outside of my dream at the end of the workshops everybody usually agrees that ramps for wheelchairs are a good idea.
The projections for the future aren’t encouraging at all since the new generations of workers are ex-volunteers that fit Flavia’s lack of vision. Yet Piña is made of beautiful and warm-hearted people, many of which are the same that founded this place decades ago. I can see they are total strangers to the dynamics of power and that must have matched perfectly with Flavia’s control freak attitude so I’m sure she had an easy game here. On a theoretical level I’m in favour of totalitarian leaderships, removing the democratic obstacles can really boost development, in this case though it revealed itself fatal since Piña Palmera hasn’t developed at all. That is not even the point, nobody in her shoes could have run Piña alone because a complex organization like this needs a variety of expertise that can never be found in just one person. What a single person can do (usually a passionate visionary) is realizing a functioning prototype that time, experts and the community will elevate to a professional level. That is not what Flavia did, she inherited the functioning prototype and dried it out for 20 years leaving Piña Palmera an empty shell.
The power and responsibilities must be redistributed to single areas, it needs urgently a skilled head for the therapy area and the special care unit, a business manager, a communication expert and of course a new general coordinator, because at the moment the only beneficiaries from Piña’s work are its workers who can somehow make an honest living out of this giant hoax.
I initially conceived this blog months ago to provide first hand experiences for potential volunteers to help them to understand if Piña Palmera was the right choice, today the ideal recipients for this blog are the people who have been loving Piña Palmera enough to cover its expenses for the last 30 years. This blog is an invitation to take a closer look where you’re money are spent and if that’s really worth it.
More than money Piña Palmera needs the change that can’t achieve from within.