Miraa House, a place where true beauty is reflected.

Written for NCWQ Newsletter by: Annette M Lourigan  JP Qual After a visit to Miraa House   “

                                   Miraa House, a place where true beauty is reflected.

“Thinking that I should know a little something about Miraa House before I visited I went to their website and discovered that it was founded by Norm and Sylvia in 2008 who, through caring for their daughter Tanya, saw the need to develop an organisation that would teach people with intellectual disabilities, skills that they could use in real life. Designed for young women, the Miraa House focus is to provide skill based training that assists with the transition from school into adult life to enable the women to be more self-sufficient as they moved from their parents’ home into supported housing.

When visiting I thought I would ask about funding, numbers of ladies going through Miraa House, difficulties associated with lack of resources etc. – write an article based on facts, supported by evidence.

On the day of the interview, I put notepad and pen in handbag, picked Noela up almost at the time I said I would and we talked about the mundane challenges that I face as I renovate my new home on our drive. We got to Miraa House early, allowing us a couple of minutes to focus and read the sign on the door- “Miraa House – Making Independence Real and Achievable”.

I am not too sure if Noela opened the front door, or if the door was opened for us because straight away my eyes were drawn to a set of beautiful brown eyes, so alert with life, framed by glorious brown thick hair, calling out “Megan”, and with that all planning simply left my head. This glorious young woman I found out from Bridget (who works at Miraa), was Tanya, Sylvia and Norm’s daughter, the reason why this sunlit room existed. As I took in my surroundings, clean walls covered with colourful, simplistic artwork my attention was drawn to the next lady to enter the room, Megan, the manager. My focus again shifted as Tanya excitedly announced Megan’s entry into the room and I witnessed a genuine connection between these two women from whom I was about to learn a little bit about friendship and life.

Megan was on track and knew why we were there and invited both Noela and I to her office. She asked Tanya if she would like to get us all coffee or tea. Tanya proclaimed “yes” and took our preferences, two black with no sugar as well as requests from Megan and Sue (who does Miraa’s marketing, who had joined us for the interview). We took our seats and within minutes Tanya came to the office with our coffee and I must admit to you that I was impressed- I would have been backwards and forwards at least three times to make sure I had the order correct and would have had coffee dripping from the cup as half would have been spilt as I carried it the 15 metres or so to the room.

To my delight Tanya took a seat and joined us. In my heart and soul I was so pleased she had joined us as I thought about how I had attended school in a time when people with any obvious sign of “not normal” were educated (or corralled) behind the walls of Spastic Schools or, as they changed at some time during my education, Special Needs Schools. As the natter of conversation started my thoughts stayed with the reality that in 47 years I had never shared coffee with a person who had a severe intellectual disability and how sad it was, as Tanya was a truly captivating conversationalist as her whole person expressed the passion of her words.

As Tanya spoke I watched Megan. I watched as she allowed Tanya to finish her sentences. I watched her face as she titled her head to really listen. Tanya spoke with enthusiasm, passion and she was focused. I witnessed two friends taking the time to share.

I didn’t want to know about funding anymore. I wanted to know about the people who call Miraa House home, the people who become friends and confidants within its walls. I was a little worried that Megan was concerned about our time frames and that we had questions to ask and needed to meet deadlines, till almost in unison Noela and I let Megan know that we had time. Tanya’s face lit up and Megan’s relaxed. It was their home, a place where people were heard and time allowed people to know that their words mattered- how refreshing.

What I adored about Tanya was that she was aware of me and knew by my body language when I wanted to ask a question. She would sit back, allow me to finish my question and both her and Megan would take turns answering it- like two old friends perfectly tuned to each other.

Noela and I learned about a lady from Miraa who shares cooking days with Tanya. Tanya’s goal was to learn how to make sandwiches, so like her Mum she could make sandwiches for her family. Megan gently shares with us that some intellectual disabilities impede fine and gross motor physical skills and that the simple task of buttering bread needs to be demonstrated allowing a person to see the task at hand and repeat the task until they can comfortably repeat it. In my soul I reflected on the pleasure I recently felt as my daughter and I shared a kitchen and made a meal together.

Tanya told us about another of her friends whom she catches the bus with and that the lights flashing mean that someone is about to get off. Megan explains that they also teach the young women how to catch a bus. Tanya reminded us that you don’t use money to get on the bus anymore, that you need your Go Card. As public transport scares the life out of me, I am always impressed by people who confidently understand its ticketing system and don’t wait with baited breath for the thing to stop where you hope it will stop.

In between Megan and Tanya’s conversation I learned that during my 47 years that the models of education for people with disabilities had gone from Institutional – the behind the walls model that I saw growing up; to Normalisation – a model that tried to place square people in round holes but only isolated people; to Inclusion – a model that allowed me to sit down and learn about life from Tanya.

I learned that some of the young women who had spent time at Miraa House had gone on to gain employment in retail or hospitality and others in manufacturing and packaging.  I learned that everybody who went to Miraa House was an individual and that their needs were met, that Miraa had a philosophy that not one size fits all.

I was pleased to learn that advances in technology assisted the young women of Miraa House, that through Ipads and IT they were learning ways to communicate – how refreshing using technology to unite youth and families, not create isolation in the void of cyber games.

Apparently Tanya has an IQ of less than 70. If people were gauged by their enthusiasm, their willingness to learn, their ability to care for people around them – Tanya would be a genius.

Megan is not a manager; she is a friend, a mentor and an advocate. Her compassion far outweighs all skills of balancing books, sorting through rosters and setting learning plans.  Megan, together with all the people connected to Miraa House, are making a difference.

In myself I took value in accepting that it was wise of me to acknowledge that using a metal grinder was out of my skill set and that being taught how to spread vegemite on a sandwich by my Mum as a little girl was far more important. I thought about my friends who patiently wait for me to finish a sentence and am grateful that in wanting to become a better person I learned the same.

I discovered in sharing an afternoon with Tanya how grateful I am that we now understand that normal cannot define all the wonderful people and moments in this world and I thought about the reality of beauty as it shows itself through the face of a young woman with no makeup and no fancy hair do.

When Sylvia set about developing Miraa House, she was doing what most parents would do; working towards giving their child the very best that they could, to ensure that their future was safe and built on solid foundations. When Sylvia selected Megan to manage Miraa House, she found a young woman who understands disabilities, as she had been around it all her life. I wonder if she knew that Tanya and Megan would become genuine friends.

Driving Noela back to her home we talked about buses, we talked about family and we shared snippets of real life. In my own silence after I dropped Noela off I thought about my Mum teaching me how to spread vegemite over butter as her Dad had taught her and I had taught my daughter. I also reflected on my mundane challenges of renovating and realised that I am blessed to be able to tackle the grinder, drop saw and drill and maybe I should see the victory in my accomplishments.

Miraa House may be focused on changing the lives of the young women who go there to learn, it also changed my life and allowed me to be grateful to live in a country that bravely faces change to ensure all of us live within our own kind of normal.”

Some names in this article have been changed to protect the privacy of that person.