Copyright 2012 © Patrick O’Brien
On occasion, people ask my help in dealing with government or bureaucracy, often times assisting them with letters to a local authority when they’ve been unfairly treated. In this example, a community house called The Neighbourhood Centre faced closure when budget cuts by a District Health Board saw their funding removed, so they asked me to write something. The human characters in my piece are real, and so is their story:
— The Neighbourhood Centre —
At the bottom of a narrow valley, its slopes covered with little wooden houses, is a small park surrounded by large trees and in which I’ve built my home.
From the branch where my house sits I can look down on my world: the park with its playground rides for children and seats for those who just wish to sit, the surrounding cottages with their tin roofs and sections neatly marked off with little fences, the people who live in the Neighbourhood and their coming and going.
Adjoining the park is a House. No different to look at than any of the others in the valley, but one which has a Rainbow Aura around it. Each morning the children come here to play and, as it is winter, they come warmly dressed with runny noses and woolly hats. The parents stamp their feet and blow onto their hands, complaining to each other of the cold.
Each day at around mid-morning, my friends and I fly across the park to the back gate of the House’s garden where the children feed us with crusts and crumbs left over from their morning tea. The children are a happy lot, tripping and falling over in their enthusiastic manner, squabbling over who is going to throw which crust and yelling at the seagulls who try to take the food.
In winter there is little else to eat.
I was startled when, yesterday, one of the children spoke to me.
“Hello little bird,” the child said; “my name’s Shannon, what’s yours?”
“Sparrow,” I replied.
“Where do you live, Sparrow?” asked the child.
“Over there in that tree, next to the climbing pole. Tell me, Shannon, where do you live?”
The child raised its large brown eyes and pointed.
“A long way from here,” it said. “over the other side of those hills there, near the sea at place called Tahunanui.”
I looked more closely at this child and realised that it was not from this Neighbourhood, and remembered having watched it arrive each morning for several months day on the back of a bike being pedalled by its father.
“That is a long way to come,” I said to the child. “Surely there must be other places you can go to play with children and which are closer to your home?”
“There are,” agreed the child; “but we are poor people and there is no money for me to attend those other play groups. Anyway,” the child concluded with a big smile, “I’ve been to some of them and I like it here the best!”
The child continued, in silence, to throw crumbs over the gate, then, after a while, suddenly looked up and spoke again.
“When it is very cold I would rather we stayed at home. Even though my father dresses me warmly in a ski suit, gloves, and a crash helmet on my head, my feet and face still hurt very much. It is painful for my father, too; I hear him moaning softly to himself on some morning when the frost is really bad . . . but he insists that we come.”
“Why does he do that, Shannon,” I asked curiously before picking up another crumb the child had thrown to me.
The child stopped throwing bread and looked at me. A large tear formed in one eye then ran down a cheek.
“My mum has gone away,” the child replied, “and my dad is lonely and sometimes very sad. He used to get angry with me, yelling, and hitting me too sometimes, when his pain was really bad. But since coming here he doesn’t do that any more; so I’m pleased to bring him, that he may be with other adults and share his problems.”
The child stopped speaking for a moment and then its face broke into a wide grin.
“I don’t mind the cold bike ride too much — the staff always have a warm fire going for us to stand by when we arrive. My father sits beside if talking to the other parents and I hear them discuss their problems and ask the staff for advice when one of us children are sick. We have been coming all winter and my father is much happier: this makes things better at home and easier for me to please him.”
The child then laughed and gaily threw the rest of the bread scraps it was holding over the fence to me. “See you tomorrow, Sparrow,” the child called happily. “I’m off now to blow bubbles.” And, with that, the child turned and skipped up the path towards the back door of the House, dodging other children at their play.
This morning I waited for my little friend, the child, to return. My wait was forlorn as the child never arrived. All day I sat near the back gate waiting for the bile with its baby seat on the rear, but it never came. None of the other children came today, either, and my friends and I went hungry with nobody to feed us.
Late in the afternoon a large furniture truck arrived. Two men got out and then spent several hours taking furniture from the House and placing it in the van. I flew closer to find out what was happening.
“Where are all the children today?” I called out, but they ignored me continued speaking to each other as they worked.
“What a shame about all these budget cuts,” said one of the men to the other. “With this place closed down the Neighbourhood kids will have nowhere to go. I wonder what will be done with the building?”
“Bulldoze it down and make a parking lot, no doubt,” the other man replied; they both laughed.
As they drove away with the last of the furniture from the House I flew back to the top of my tree and sat thinking.
“What,” I wondered, “is a budget cut; and why did it mean that the children couldn’t come here any more.”
Then, as the sun set, a deep sigh seemed to pass over the Neighbourhood and, as I watched, the Rainbow Aura around the House flickered briefly and went out.
I’m happy to report that the District Health Board reversed its original budgetary decision and funding for The Neighbourhood Centre was increased. It remains open, delivering early intervention health care to its local community . . .