Let's admit it: if someone, before last Tuesday, had told me that the most delightful pizza of my life would be created by the brainstorming of English chefs and former drug addicts, I probably never would have believed them. This is one of the magic things that happened during WeFree Days, the Community of San Patrignano's programme which every year involves school pupils and crews from all over the world and celebrates the freedom from any type of addiction.
I was invited as an English to Italian interpreter by the Jamie Oliver Foundation, which sent some of Jamie's Fifteen graduates to San Patrignano. Jamie's Fifteen is a famous restaurant in London, but it's also a school for young people. Every year, the Foundation chooses 18 kids with a troubled past and makes them into highly-skilled chefs. Together with Fifteen graduates, in San Patrignano there were Afghan skaters, Brazilian dancers, Portugal graffiti artists, break dancers from Rome, Berlin, Canada and Uganda. They all became my brothers.
Everyone of them has a story to tell, a message to lead, something to teach and something to learn. Everyone, every day, engages young people to promote social responsibility, builds leadership skills, helps disadvantaged people, and encourages them to be re-born. Like phoenixes. And if there is a safe place in the whole world where the shiniest phoenixes can build their nests, that is definitely San Patrignano.
I have lived for three years in Perugia, one of the cities in Italy which suffers most from drug issues. In Perugia, the erosion of the social tissue is so deep and worrying that people have become angry and scared. Before arriving in San Patrignano, I decided to leave my prejudices outside, and when I left, I abandoned them.
For over 30 years, SanPa gives a new life to people who used to take drugs. They come from all over the world, and the percentage of success is incredibly high: 72% of them quit with drugs for good. At SanPa, being alone is strictly forbidden: everyday you live cheek to jowl with someone else, you share meals, joys and sorrows. Everyone has a well-defined role in the community, because when you have completed the four-year programme, you must face your future life with the certainty of being able to work as a professional.
On San Patrignano's wall you can read so much pain, alienation, loneliness, unacknowledgment, fear. But the smiles of the guys shout joy, hope, will to live. We spent five days in SanPa and we heard lots of stories about people who made huge mistakes, but had the strength and the humility of admitting their own limits and failures and then rise from the dust again. Who hasn't ever made any mistakes in his life, after all?
Thanks to WeFree, secondary school students could get in SanPa and see with their own eyes how powerful the passion is, so much that it can change the world and make a difference. They saw how much strength you can find inside yourself, so much to find the way you've lost. Every group who have experienced WeFree have brought something to share with San Patrignano's guys. Guys, not monsters. Because at SanPa there are no monsters, just people who have two eyes, two legs and two arms with well rolled-up sleeves.
We danced with Ugandian guys, beatboxed with the crew from Toronto and ate pizza made by the blend of Fifteen and SanPa chefs' recipes. We arrived all different, and we left complete, enriched. Equal.
San Patrignano is a community that welcomes all young men and women who have serious drug abuse problems, regardless of ideology, social background, or religion, and completely free of charge, accepting no payment or funding from their families or the government.
Since 1978, San Patrignano has taken in over 18,000 people, offering them a home, healthcare, legal assistance, and the opportunity to study, learn a job, change their lives, and regain their status as full members of society.
If you or someone you know is addicted to drugs, and you want to find out more about how to enter the San Patrignano community then email us.
Photo credit by WeFree