The Deputy Director of the Emmaus Center for Support of Persons with Special Needs, Olha Mykhailyshyn, from 9 to 14 July took part in an international program in Catholic leadership at the University of Notre Dame (USA), where she also shared her experience of working with people with disabilities. At Notre Dame, representatives of Catholic universities from Ukraine, Poland, Slovakia, Croatia, Hungary, and the USA talked about the ethical and philosophical foundations of leadership, teamwork, fundraising, and interpersonal communication.

According to Olha Mykhailyshyn, she was set to take part in the program last year and was approved by the University of Notre Dame. But the program was delayed until 2021 because of the quarantine.

“In addition to studying in the USA, I had a unique opportunity to share the experience of the Emmaus Center,” explains Olha Mykhailyshyn. “Two years ago, representatives of the University of Notre Dame were at UCU and visited the Emmaus House. They were impressed and inspired by the idea of such a building on campus. In order to share the experience of UCU and Emmaus, a special meeting was organized for the representatives of Notre Dame, including two vice-presidents of the university. The meeting was warm and inspiring! Even though Notre Dame is a large university with 180 years of history, our young and not large Catholic university has unique experience which can be shared.”

Olga Mykhailyshyn, Deputy Head of the Emmaus Center during a presentation in Notre Dame

The Emmaus Center has operated at UCU for 20 years and is changing the attitude of Ukrainian society regarding people with special needs: it organizes educational meetings, supports families with such family members, and it also helps people with disabilities find work, hobbies, and friends. The building in which the Emmaus House is located is perhaps the only one in the world that successfully functions at a university’s student residence. The UCU community calls the participants of Emmaus projects “friends.” 

In her presentation at the Nanovic Institute of European Studies at the University of Notre Dame, Olha Mykhailyshyn explained how at the Ukrainian Catholic University a center operates which helps people with disabilities be integrated into society. Answering a question, she recalled three short quotes from UCU President and Metropolitan of Philadelphia Borys Gudziak:

  1. UCU is like a locomotive which is pulling behind itself changes in society

UCU truly was one of the first institutions in Ukraine which began to change the situation and attitude to people with limited possibilities in Ukrainian society, in order to lessen stigmatization and announce the dignity of all people, regardless of their intellectual level and abilities.

  1. It’s not enough for students to have a lot of knowledge in their heads; they also need love in their hearts

In our time, universities are not only sources of academic knowledge but institutions which form students’ worldview, raising future generations which will initiate further changes in society.

  1. “People with intellectual disabilities are professors of human relations for us”

The friends ruin any paradigms. They don’t take in mind your status in society, your role, academic degree, and income. One thing matters to them: “Can you accept me, talk with me? Can you love me?” And so their sincerity and directness often force us to slow down and reflect on the importance of each moment.

UCU students with a friend of the Emmaus Center

Olha Mykhailyshyn further spoke of other areas of activity of the Emmaus Center, namely:

  1. Education: The center conducts educational presentations on a more general level (for students in schools and universities, the service industry, government institutions, etc.) and on a professional level (special seminars for teachers, medical personnel, psychologists, etc.), and also through publishing books and journals, social media, and the mass media.
  2. Support of families: The center organizes meetings, cycles, and weekends for various categories of relatives of persons with disabilities: fathers, mothers, grandmothers and grandfathers, brothers and sisters of various age groups. 
  3. Integration of people with disabilities into society, through projects like:

– The Emmaus House, an assisted living center located in the student residence, the Collegium. The people of Emmaus and students share not only a common living space, but they take part in joint events and meet often and interact.

– Job search in the labor market. This initiative is a way to resolve the problem of the isolation of people with special needs, to help them realize themselves, to earn money and be useful for society. 

– Social-cultural events, including for those friends who are isolated, meetings of the “youth club.” 

– Sports;

– Integrational theater; 

– Special events at UCU, like Liturgies, Friday Coffee at the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Center, Wishing Tree, etc.

“In the last part of my presentation, I turned my attention to the area of work with students and the level of influence of the Emmaus Center’s activities on UCU and its students, as described in a recent publication of UNESCO’s book “Socially responsible higher education,” which has a chapter on the Emmaus Center, included as one of the best examples of a socially responsible university.

Olga Mykhailyshyn with UCU colleagues at the University of Notre Dame

I received positive comments on the presentation from all the participants. Some shared their impressions and hopes that, after such an inspiring presentation, it would be possible soon to start a project similar to UCU’s Emmaus Center at Notre Dame,” Olha Mykhailyshyn shared. 

Finally, she added that she is very pleased that she had an opportunity to share her experience with others: “The Emmaus Center is a unique element of our university. With the center’s example, we can see how it helps students not only fill out their knowledge but also fill their hearts. And the fact that such noted institutions as UNESCO and the University of Notre Dame have noticed us makes me sure that we are going in the right direction.”