The Emmaus Community is a successful example of how people with various disabilities can be integrated into society. In this case, into the vibrant academic environment of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. This is the story of Nadia and Khystyna, two young women who work there.

By Yakiv Bohdan Shumylo O.S.B.M.

Nadia Kalachova studied economics for four years. But her childhood dream was to be a journalist. When that dream came true, she discovered the Lord had given her something unique.

“The search for God and for your own vocation go hand in hand, because when you find God, He is the one who helps you discover your vocation”.

While attending the School of Journalism at the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU), Nadia started deepening her knowledge of God. “When I came to UCU”, she says, “I brought some unresolved questions with me. My parents are part of the Protestant community, so I had a certain experience of faith. But in all this, I was searching for order and I had doubts”. Interesting classes, conversations with her teachers, and listening to the faith experiences of her friends, revealed to Nadia how God works in everyday life.

Once her studies were completed, Nadia had to think about a career. “I had ambitions about being a journalist, but at the same time I prayed and asked God where He wanted me. Little by little, the road opening up before me pointed me in the direction of people with mental disabilities”.

It all began when she read Dorota Terakowska’s book “The Chrysalis”: the story of how a family copes with their daughter’s particularly serious form of Down’s Syndrome. Soon afterwards, Nadia met Roman Maksymovych, a young man affected by the same genetic pathology. Nadia was struck by the way he recited Saint Paul’s “Hymn of Charity”, from the Letter to the Corinthians.

“We try to see in people with disabilities, the dignity and gifts that God has given them,” explains Nadia. Then we try to help them find their place in society, because the Lord has given each one a mission in life. Members of the “Emmaus” community at UCU, to which Nadia belongs, call people with disabilities “friends”.

Jean Vanier, Founder of L’Arche

Nadia finds her inspiration in Jean Vanier, founder of the “L’Arche” Community, a voluntary organization that supports and assists people with special needs. Nadia identifies with the following phrase: “It is not only the weak who need the strong, but also the strong who need the weak. Because with their weakness they awaken in us the energy of tenderness”. Nadia recalls the many occasions when people with disabilities helped her rediscover this tenderness, something she describes as a “need” rather than a “reward”.

Discovering individual uniqueness

“Don’t be afraid to take the first step in discovering the uniqueness of people with special needs”, says Nadia. But do be aware that certain things can only be learned with time. It is not always easy to build relationships with these new friends. Nadia describes her own experience of feeling she had failed to connect with them at all. That is because, in today’s world, everything must be immediate. People with special needs, on the other hand, teach us to slow down.

Discovering the mystery and uniqueness of people with special needs takes time and patience, explains Nadia. They reveal their gifts slowly and in a deep form of communication. Which is why, with simplicity and spontaneity, they teach us how to trust.

Nadia with Danylo of the “Emmaus” Community.

Nadia recounts what, for her, have been some of the more exhilarating moments of working with people who are intellectually challenged. Her encounter with Paul is one of them. “He came up to me and hugged me”, she says, “then he touched his eyebrow with his finger and said: ‘You are simply divine!’. He wasn’t just giving me a superficial compliment. With these words, he reminded me that human beings are ‘divine’ because they are created by God. Paul would often say to me: ‘Straighten up!’. He wasn’t referring to posture. On the contrary. Many of these ‘friends’ of ours go through life bent over, because they are often rejected. Instead, with those words Paul was telling me not to hide my heart, that I must be open to people”.

Discovering a less complicated world

Khrystyna Moroz works with the “Emmaus” Community on the UCU campus. “People with disabilities see so much”, she says, “they are able to observe things that for others seem invisible”. Through them, we discover a less complicated world.

Khrystyna Moroz during a film production

“I had no previous experience of communicating with this kind of person”, she says. “When I was studying at university, I never paid attention to them”. It all started with a search, both inner and outer, that ended when Khrystyna saw an advertisement for employment as an assistant with the UCU “Emmaus” Community. During the job interview, they asked her the usual questions about her strengths and weaknesses. She got the position, but thought of it as a stopgap before finding something better. She has been with the “Emmaus” Community now for four years.

“The first few months were difficult and it seemed like the job really wasn’t for me. It didn’t correspond to my training and my ambitions. But after a year I realized the people there mattered a lot to me and I decided to stay”.

Khrystyna talks about her relationships with her friends at the Emmaus Community and how no one there asks you questions about your life, who or how important you are. They just love you. “Even if I am not doing what I studied for, I am at the service of something bigger. I am always learning something new”, she says. The more time she spends here, the more she feels this is where she wants to be.

A moment during a L’Arche festival

Working among people with disabilities helps to shape your personality, continues Khrystyna. “Since I have been working here, communication networks and internal relationships have changed”. We know so much more now, she says. “I recognize there are different people and different situations, but everything seems easier. That is what I have learnt at ‘Emmaus’”.

Discovering new realities

Khrystyna recalls the reaction of someone who visited the Emmaus Community and discovered that she, Khrystyna, had a university degree and a happy family back home. “She was amazed. She was convinced that it was only unhappy people with broken hearts and no families, who work with people with disabilities”.

Nadia Kalachova directs an inclusive project involving university students and people with disabilities

“The more we go out into society and let people experience the gifts of intellectually challenged people, the more natural it seems, and the less we feel we have to prove something”.

Nadia and Khrystyna speak tenderly about Katrusia, who needs particular care and attention because she suffers from both cerebral palsy and autism. They marvel at her ability to communicate positivity to everyone around her. Even the cheerful sound of her voice when she says “Hello” is enough put people in a good mood, they say. Her sweet and discreet way of being helps others to appreciate small things they may not even have noticed before.

Pope Francis often speaks of the revolution of tenderness. He teaches us that tenderness means using our eyes to “see” the other, listening with our ears to “hear” the other. Perhaps we all need that kind of grace in order to be bearers of God’s mercy, tenderness and love.

The story of Nadia and Khrystyna is an example of that kind of seeing and hearing. It is a story of love: a love that recognizes the other in all their inner beauty.