Lessons from the Village

Posted on January 1, 2011 by


Sólheimar is a sustainable community located in the south-east of Iceland where about a hundred individuals live and work together. The community is composed for the most part, about 45%, of adults with mental handicaps. The village was founded in 1930 by Sesselja Hreindís Sigmundsdóttir (1902-1974) who initially wanted to help orphan children with mental handicaps by creating a space for them to grow and develop. With the years, the community eventually grew into a village with a number of facilities to accommodate the aging children and welcome more residents. Sesselja’s vision to provide a place of integration for mentally-handicapped individuals is still at the foundation of the village and, now that these children have become adults, they take part in the community by working in its different workshops and businesses. There is the organic greenhouse, called Sunna, which provides vegetables for the meals served at lunch time and which sells on the Icelandic market. The only organic forestry of the island is located in Sólheimar; Ölur. There are six workshops in the village which produce crafts and goods to sell. These are: a candle, ceramics, weaving and fine art workshop as well as an herbal workshop that makes soaps, creams and the likes. Other businesses include a shop, a café, a bakery and two guesthouses.

The independent organization Sesseljuhus Center for Sustainable Development and Education was founded in Sólheimar in 2007 to create a space to promote sustainable living and education. It is used for conferences, seminars and meetings on related topics and cooperates with local and foreign schools to give education in sustainability. Interns are accepted at Sesseljuhus and are meant to work on projects which could be beneficial for the center, Sólheimar and sustainability. Being an intern at Sesseljuhus is also an opportunity to experience living in an eco-village as interns take part in different workshops around the village twice a week and are encouraged to participate and create community events.

This fall, I had the opportunity to be an intern at Sesseljuhus Center for Sustainable Development and Education. I was involved at the organic greenhouse during my days of community service and worked in Sesseljuhus on projects like establishing a paper and plastic workshop and doing a sustainability assessment of the local guesthouse. It was a great way to acquire knowledge and insight on sustainability and practical experience in community development. Moreover, there are two particular lessons from my time at Sólheimar which I believe helped me understand better what sustainability depends on.

Sustainability is about creativity

Putting up a workshop to recyclepaper and make plastic goods required me to work my creativity to conceive new products. The research I did to find inspiration showed me that creativity had no limits. Examples of creative people who ultimately became advocates of sustainability are all over internet: people making greenhouses out of plastic bottles, rain jackets out of plastic bags, scrapbooks out of recycled paper, etc. It became apparent that creativity is at the essence of reducing, reusing and recycling. It is with imagination that unique crafts, ideas and solutions are brought to life. The workshops and events at Sólheimar are the result of people who used material and traditions at their disposal, worked their imagination and concocted unique final products. Creativity is essential to promote sustainability in all its aspects. In terms of economics, new ideas can lead to the development of interesting goods and services necessary to make a business strive.  In terms of the environment, new ideas can lead to the creation of mechanisms that decrease human pressure on resources. Socially, creative thinking can foster venues for social interaction like intervention groups, parties and recreational gatherings. Sustainability is in the hands of people who think outside of the box and are ready to go beyond conventional ways of doing things.

Passion matters as much as knowledge

I was impressed by the passion of the members of the community and found beautiful their devotion to what they had at heart. When I think of the enthusiasm of the manager of the greenhouse when he saw his plants grow every week, I realize that knowledge alone is not what makes a person who he or she is. This man is the manager of the greenhouse because he loves plants, not because he knows the most about them. The same goes for any individual that has an interest in Sólheimar; it is their love for the people and culture of this community that keeps them going. They are devoted to a cause and will do what it takes to better it. Passion is also dedication. Soon into my stay at Sólheimar, I realized that the interns were also expected to help around the village, like with carpentry work and cleaning storage rooms. At first, I was slightly annoyed to be taken away from my projects at Sesseljuhus, but eventually I realized the importance of being involved in building a sustainable community. Giving one’s own time and energy to help others in a cause demonstrates dedication and good-heartedness, qualities essential to build a better place. Knowledge is important and needs to be produced in order to be applied, but the essence of sustainability is participation.

These lessons are actually quite simple and, when we think of it, we already knew them. We tend to forget them though and put a lot of importance on knowledge and academic skills. In the quest for sustainability, the significance of personal qualities such as creativity and dedication should be remembered. Forming the future advocates of sustainability will start in classes where creative-thinking is encouraged. The passionate advocate will emerge from life-lessons of hard work. Sólheimar is a place to experience how a community achieves positive changes in sustainability through passion and creativity.

If you would like more information on Sólheimar eco-village or Sesseljuhus Center for Sustainable Development, go to: http://www.solheimar.is/

If you would like or consider becoming an intern, go to: http://www.sesseljuhus.is/Template1.asp? Sid_NR=645&E_NR=617&VS=1VS1.asp&VT=636&VT2=645

There you will find an application form with details on the different positions, application and selection procedures and contact persons