‘Now we feel like human beings’ - Transforming the lives of children with disabilities and their parents in Rustavi and Bolnisi
By Sarah Marcus for UNICEF Georgia
Two paintings hang on a wall. Full of interesting shapes and colours, these intriguing abstract works are the focal point in a small room in a modest building in the Georgian city of Rustavi, south east of the country’s capital Tbilisi.
Today this room is hosting a celebration – the opening ceremonies for a support centre for parents of children with disabilities in Rustavi. The centre aims to help parents deal with the stress of their situation through various types of therapy. The paintings on the wall are the product of parents working together to express their feelings through art.
‘Before this centre opened there was hardly any support available to these parents,’ said Vova Khvitia, a special education teacher who provides individual and group counselling and training to both the parents and their children.
‘All our work here is starting from scratch – we are like pioneers. And I can already see in these parents’ eyes the difference attending the centre is making to them,’ he continued.
The opening of the centre was spearheaded by Ketevan Durglishvili, herself a mother of a child with disabilities, and funded mostly by UNICEF who covered the refurbishment of the centre’s premises and the staff costs with the local municipality showing their support by covering utility bills.
The centre is located next door to a day care centre for children with disabilities which was opened and funded in full by the local municipality in response to lobbying by a local NGO in 2007. The majority of the parents attending the support centre have children attending the adjoining day care centre.
‘Many parents of children with disabilities were sceptical about what the centre could do for them, but it exceeded their expectations,’ Durglishvili said at the centre’s opening.
Durglishvili and her staff run a range of training and counselling sessions – for parents with their children, for parents in groups and for parents on their own. Parents meet with various specialists including neurologists, psychiatrists, physiotherapists and special education therapists.
The training that parents get at the centre helps them to maximise the capabilities of their children and is in line with international best practices.
‘I am deeply impressed by the drive and commitment of the parents who attend this centre and who have set it up. Making sure disabled children are visible and included in society is critical for overcoming the barriers they face.’said Aaron Greenberg, UNICEF Georgia Child Protection Chief
At the centre’s opening Aaron Greenberg,Child Protection Chief of UNICEF Georgia thanked the local municipality for their support and said, ‘I am deeply impressed by the drive and commitment of the parents who attend this centre and who have set it up. Making sure disabled children are visible and included in society is critical for overcoming the barriers they face.’
Challenging and overcoming the stigma which is attached to disabilities in Georgian society is one of the centre’s main goals and something that the parents are passionate about.
Makvala has a child with disabilities who is now 17 years old.
‘Before I began attending the centre I didn’t even want to go out. For 17 years I was very involved with my own tragedy,’ she said.
‘But now I have managed to overcome the stigma. This organisation gives us the feeling that we are also human beings and we are part of society. It has helped me so much just to get out and meet other people. It has changed my life and the life of my child,’ she concluded.
Makvala’s enthusiasm about the centre was echoed by other parents, some of whom said they even see some minor improvements in their children’s condition since they have been attending sessions there.
Another mother, Eliso, said that attending the centre gives parents like her renewed energy and strength, something which they are able to pass onto their children.
‘Now we have hope,’ she concluded.
Bolnisi Day Care Centre for Children with Disabilities
A grassroots initiative similar to the one which led to the opening of the Rustavi parents’ centre recently achieved its goal of opening a day care centre in the Georgian town of Bolnisi.
A local NGO, the Association of the Disabled Child and Society, headed by Nino Maruashvili, set about opening a day care centre and obtaining some state funding for this.
The local municipality agreed to collaborate, providing and refurbishing the centre’s premises. From January 2010 the municipality will include the centre in its local budget, thus allowing it to make further improvements to the premises and to services it runs.
The centre, which caters for 30 children and young people between the ages of 4 and 18 and is targeted mainly at children from socially vulnerable families, is strongly supported by UNICEF, who procured furniture, learning and therapy materials and who pay staff salaries and run training sessions. The municipality covers transport, electricity and the children’s nutrition costs.
At the centre there is one staff member for every 2 children, which is in line with international standards for care of children with disabilities. The children are educated and given therapy according to their needs and abilities, with a range of services available for different groups including art therapy, social therapy focusing on development of social skills, psychotherapy and fun and play-led education.
Maruashvili, the centre’s founder, said that before it opened there were only sporadic support services provided by NGOs for children with disabilities and their parents in the Bolnisi area.
‘The children are doing well here. Before they came here some of them couldn’t even sit at a table. Now they can. Seeing their children learn things here is a major motivation for parents,’ she said.
The centre is equipped with toys, books and learning and movement aids. Children’s paintings adorn the building’s brightly-painted walls.
11-year-old Dato Eloshvili is one of a few of the centre’s children who also attend regular school – in his case twice a week.
‘I like learning here, I have friends here,’ he responds when asked how he likes the centre.
His satisfaction is reflected in the smiles of his peers as they sit down to lunch. They are friendly and open and it is clear that attending the centre is helping them to maximise their potential and overcome the problems of living with a disability.