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Building Community for Adults with Disabilities in Montpellier

Kelly Salance

For students of German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the themes explored by Montpellier’s La Bulle Bleue theater troupe will be readily familiar, ones that lead to an uncomfortable question: how can outsiders express themselves in the face of a society that cannot—or will not—accept them for who they are?

Fassbinder often employed non-professional actors to explore that question as well as to deconstruct standard cinema and theater tropes, and so it’s fitting that La Bulle Bleue’s theater group is comprised of 14 actors with developmental disabilities who fearlessly shed light on their inner lives and experiences.

“It is a question of allowing every citizen to have access to an artistic practice beyond his or her difficulties—the essential stake of allowing everyone to be able to develop artistic potential and to be able to express it,” says Stéphanie Teillais-Blandamour, La Bulle Bleue spokesperson. “It’s an artistic and political question. Artists with disabilities have significant artistic potential, and they must be accompanied to enable them to develop it and to express it. It’s a process of self-confidence and emancipation.”

That challenge—to help artists with disabilities to realize their artistic potential—is just part of La Bulle Bleue’s mission, which is to serve and empower adults with developmental disabilities in Montpellier’s community. Opened in February 2012 as a pilot program for the Culture Santé Handicap et Dépendance in the Occitanie region of southern France, La Bulle Bleue provides volunteers from a range of artistic disciplines—theater, food, and gardening—who instruct and guide its 46 clients.

While the theater group enters the final stage of its three-part Beware of Fassbinder! project, the staff of La Bulle Bleue’s catering and gardening services are exploring creativity in their own ways, from experimenting with various cuisines to creating an inviting environment surrounding the theater.

For the catering service, which Zendesk hires for internal events, that means using fresh, locally sourced ingredients prepared under the watchful eye of a local culinary professional. “Training is provided by the chefs, and there are also one-off trainings based on themes,” says Teillais-Blandamour. “The cooks are autonomous and do the preparation, but they need the support of the cook-educator.”

Those catering employees do more than cook and serve meals to local businesses; for example, from October 2017 through June 2018, they participated in workshops with members of France Alzheimer Hérault that were designed to stimulate fading memories.

La Bulle Bleue intentionally combines the catering service with its cultural projects, Teillais-Blandamour says. “The two aspects are combined in a common project of access to culture and time for exchange, sharing, and discovery around the senses,” she says. “We take action to create shared artistic or leisure time. ” This past June in partnership with FAF-LF, they hosted 'dinner in the dark' (repas dans le noir), where supper guest were blindfolded to simulate being visually imparted and having to rely on your other senses. 

The secret to La Bulle Bleue's success is combining innovative with inclusivity - always looking to see how to push the boundaries of convention and bring a traditionally marginalized group to the center stage (as well as kitchen and garden).  

Interesting in attending a theater performance or using La Bulle Bleue’s catering services?Head over to their website to learn more!

Montpellier's symbol of Progress

Kelly Salance

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A quick walk from our Montpellier Zendesk office, across the Pont Jean Zuccarelli, the short bridge that arches over the city’s winding River Lez, stands an angular structure of azure glass and metal—the Town Hall—that conjures thoughts of Montpellier’s progress while mimicking the relentless movement of the burbling waters at its base.

Designed by architect Jean Nouvel (who designed adventurous buildings such as the Palace of Culture and Congress in Lucerne, Switzerland; the Agbar Tower in Barcelona, Spain; and the Louvre Abu Dhabi) and Montpellier’s own François Fontès, the Town Hall’s parallelepiped—in other words, a three-dimensional parallelogram—dimensions reflect the Port Marianne district’s steady expansion over the past half century.

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Inaugurated in November 2011 by former Mayor Helen Mandroux, the €130 million building was constructed over a four-year period by Bec Construction and Castel & Fromaget (Fayat Group) to serve as a social hub for Montpellier’s citizens, where they could conduct business, throw weddings, or just take in the beauty of their city.

The structure’s mesmerizing design has not gone unnoticed. “Inspiration for the unique form came from the previous town hall, the Hotel de Région, which was loosely based on the Arc de Triumph,” wrote Benjamin Blankenbehler of Architecture Revived in 2015. “The Regional Hall attempted to digitize the classic Arc de Triumph icon into a gridded modern object, and this was pushed further by Nouvel, resulting in a profound and complex structure.”

Blankenbehler saw the Town Hall as setting a new standard for modern architecture. “Subtle shifts of color from green to blue create a striking gradient, punctuated by serrated, translucent, and reflective materials,” he wrote. “Voids of gaping spaces render a three-dimensional maze. The lighting could have come straight out of the movie Tron, and oversized murals adorn some ceilings.”

For Nouvel, he sees the building as a portal for both the river and the people of Montpellier. “It stands in the sunshine. It is familiar with and wary of the sun, but it plays an ancestral game,” said Nouvel in a statement on his website. “Shadows, reflections, views through the shutters. . .it has taken up residence along the River Lez. It overlooks it and invites it inside, too. It welcomes the river, lets it in, as a guarantee of freshness and vibrant light. It lives on the edge of a large park and the city, besieged by trees. The cobblestones from the square slip right inside the lobby and down to the water.”

When designing the building, Nouvel decided that it needed to offer changing views of the city (which it’s projectable shutters with adjustable louvers achieve nicely). “It is an urban interior, a reinterpretation of the thousands of reasons why people live together, go and visit, or entertain each other,” Nouvel said. “With its trees, gardens, terraces, water, freshness, shadows, light, angles of view, filters, images, and interaction, it seeks to be hospitable and optimistic, aware that its role is to invite all Montpellier residents inside.”

Meet Kevin: A Software Engineer with a passion for volunteering

Kelly Salance

At most companies, it’s a bit unusual to hear the sound of children in the halls, much less two dozen highly excited 8-year-olds. But at Zendesk’s office in Montpellier, France, the tremendous racket that accompanies a gaggle of young students is not only welcomed—it’s commonplace.

 Illustration by  Chelsea   Larsson . 

Illustration by Chelsea Larsson

That’s because the local CoderDojo chapter, led by Zendesk software engineer Kevin McGuinness, makes it a point to bring local students to the office to learn the skills that they’ll need when it’s time for them to join the workforce. While those coding skills will pay dividends down the road, for now the focus remains on one trait that all children have from birth.

“They want to have fun, to put it simply,” McGuinness says. “We’ve had debates down the years about how we run our classes—should we plan our class like a teacher would? We’ve always had to come back to the workshop environment. It’s a very open-door philosophy. We’re not telling kids what to do, we’re trying to guide them and light their curiosity.”

Inspiring students to follow their curiosity is CoderDojo’s raison d’ệtre. Launched in 2011 in Cork, Ireland, the worldwide nonprofit focuses on helping children ages 7-17 understand programming languages, a skill set that’s essential in the modern world. Led by volunteers like McGuinness, the organization’s 1,600-plus community-based programming clubs are located in 75 countries.

McGuinness, who studied applied and medical physics at the National University of Ireland in Galway and the University of Limerick in his native Ireland, moved to Montpellier in 2013, where he worked as a QA software engineer and as an R&D technician for various companies. When he decided that it was time to give back to his new community, CoderDojo made perfect sense. “I was looking to get involved in a local club or association that would give back to people,” McGuinness says. “And I wanted to use my IT skills.”

His chance to give back arose in 2015, when McGuinness got in touch with the University of Montpellier Polytech, which was looking to start a local chapter. Now, with fellow CoderDojo volunteers, McGuinness teaches local kids using Scratch, MIT’s programming language that was designed to teach children to think creatively, use reason to solve problems, and collaborate. The students then use the language to create stories, games, and animations—whatever strikes their fancy.

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“Sometimes if we introduce a concept through Scratch, we might have a general idea of demo example that we take to the session, a frame to the session the kids can then expand on,” McGuinness says. “It’s surprising how quickly they grasp the concept—and then they’ll change the idea and customize it if they think it’s lame.”

In January 2018, Zendesk invited the Montpellier chapter to visit the office—initially McGuinness saw it as an opportunity for the students to get support from a company with a similar sense of responsibility to the community. However, to his surprise, that visit eventually turned into a job opportunity.

“It was a match made in heaven,” McGuinness says. “I was already involved with CoderDojo, and now I was going to company where not only could I dedicate a certain amount of my time to helping kids, I was encouraged to do it. There’s great peace of mind with that.”

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Since joining Zendesk, McGuinness has brought the CoderDojo students to the office three times, with more visits planned when the fall term begins. “We’re getting the balance how many people we need,” McGuinness says. “It’s not just me—when these classes come, there’s a teacher, and my Zendesk colleagues help set us up with laptops. There’s plenty of support.”

That support sometimes includes teaching kids technology with some decidedly old-school technology: pencils and paper. McGuinness and his fellow volunteers will help the students count binary numbers or work with pixels. “What we’ve found for the first five minutes of the class is the kids are like, ‘Where are the computers—what’s going on?’” McGuiness says with a laugh. “But once they understand it, they’re off.”

Hands On Manila: Transforming the Philippines one daycare at a time

Kelly Salance

Thirty minutes to the southeast of the heart of Manila lies Taguig City, near the Philippines’ largest freshwater lake, Laguna de Bay. Once home to small fishing villages that dotted the lake’s shoreline, the area’s population has grown sixfold since 1980—and despite having a booming downtown business district, smaller enclaves on the outskirts, such as Sitio Pusawan, still struggle with poverty and lack of services.

Part of the Ususan Barangay, Pusawan had long faced a critical shortage of daycare for its children, that is until non-profit Hands on Manila partnered with the local government, the Bases Conversion Development Authority, and Zendesk to build a new daycare center to accommodate the community’s 150 preschool age children. Completed in early 2017, the Sitio Pusawan Daycare Center now holds four classes a day, providing crucial early education to the community’s children.

Take a behind-the-scenes look at the building of the daycare center in Barangay Ususan, Taguig City.

“There used to be two tiny daycare centers inside the community, but the new center provides a more conducive learning atmosphere to the kids,” says Dondon Marquez, executive director for Hands on Manila. “The center has two rooms and is also used as multipurpose hall where teachers and parents meetings are held as well as other activities.”

As Marquez sees it, those four classes per day and the role the center plays in supporting the community at large has convinced local officials of the power of public-private partnerships, paving the way for additional donations and serving as an example for other communities in need. “The partnership opened doors for more opportunities for the community,” Marquez says. “Some individuals and corporate donors were inspired to provide some of the center's other needs, like educational materials and equipment, when they saw that the kids were attending classes in the new center.”

Established 17 years ago, Hands on Manila has over 30,000 registered volunteers who have contributed more than 300,000 hours toward projects such as the Sitio Pusuwan Daycare Center,. Those efforts have benefited an estimated 58,000 children, 2,000 seniors, 14 public schools/centers, 62 orphanages, and 120 non-governmental organizations—and when the nonprofit sees a community in need, it stays committed to it for the long haul.

For example, since the daycare center opened, its offerings have expanded beyond the original mission of caring for and educating the neighborhood’s children. With food security being a persistent issue for some members of the community, Hands on Manila, in partnership with Zendesk, designed an urban gardening program that recruited the heads of 30 families—along with their children and the center’s staff—to grow organic fruit and vegetables on the center’s land.

“Extra harvests can be sold to neighbors fresh, or they can be processed further for additional income, thus becoming an income-generating project for the community,” Marquez says. “The urban gardening also contributes to community programs for waste management because it uses non-biodegradable plastic bottles as growing containers, reducing waste sent to urban landfills.”

While Hands on Manila’s efforts to improve child care options and food security for Pusawan’s citizens have gained traction in the past year-and-a-half, the nonprofit’s commitment to uplifting the neighborhood isn’t new. At the heart of these efforts to empower communities is Hands on Manila’s focus on making volunteering an integral part of citizens’ lives. Those volunteers—like the ones who helped make the Sitio Pusawan Daycare Center a reality—play in an important role in furthering Hands on Manila’s ultimate goal: to transform the Philippines one community at a time.