Helping children live happy, hopeful lives - UNICEF funding transforms lives of children with disabilities in Gori, Georgia
January, 2010 - by Sarah Marcus for UNICEF Georgia
Four-year-old Shota smiles as he hands toy building bricks to his carer. Sitting in his special supportive chair he holds his head up and can recognise people and respond to stimulus.
This represents huge progress for Shota, who suffers from cerebral palsy. He used to be unable to move at all, nor could he speak, nor react to people or stimulus. Now, after some months attending the day care centre for children with disabilities in Gori, Georgia, he is a happy little boy whose natural intelligence is shining through his disability.
The story of Shota’s transformation is mirrored by many more such stories in this centre. Set up in 2001 by people with disabilities themselves, the centre now caters for about 450 adults and 150 children with mental and physical special needs.
The centre secured funding from UNICEF as part of the project to build capacity for service providers and families in centres for children with special needs in several cities in Georgia.
Thanks to UNICEF UK National Committee such playgrounds and sport facilities will be set up in four more centres for disabled children throughout Georgia.
“Despite the cold weather children love to go out and to play at their new playground,” said Pikria Gelashvili, manager of the centre. “Nothing stops them to be there as they are so happy when they play.” she said.
By playing outside children also help each other and this fosters collaboration and a sense of community among children themselves.
In addition, this funding enabled the centre in Gori to pay salaries to its staff and to provide training for them – a crucial part of ensuring that qualified specialists have up-to-date skills and also know how to work and interact with children with disabilities.
This funding, which runs until the end of April 2010, has had a transformative effect on the centre’s work. It receives a state grant to fund 35 children to attend, but otherwise is almost entirely donor dependent.
‘When you see concrete results, when you see the children developing their learning and skills, that is the most rewarding thing,’ said Pikria Gelashvili.
The centre operates a child-centred model of care and employs specialist psychologists, physiotherapists, speech therapists and other professionals. It runs four groups for children of different ages. In the room where the youngest group are playing and learning to recite poems, identical twins called Nana and Ana have just arrived from school, which they attend as their disability is less severe.
They are collected from school and brought to the centre by one of two buses procured by UNICEF. The buses have changed the lives of many children with disabilities who live not in the centre of Gori but in outlying villages of the whole region of Shida Kartli. There are 341 children with disabilities registered in this region.
Although children with special needs from Gori usually had some opportunities for social interaction, those who live in outlying villages were previously completely isolated and confined to their homes, but now have the chance to develop their skills and personalities, to play and to make friends while attending the centre.
In the wake of the conflict which erupted in and around South Ossetia, Georgia in August 2008, the centre has also played a crucial role in supporting children with disabilities who have been internally displaced. Approximately 10,000 children remain internally displaced since the conflict and many of these have been resettled with their families in the Shida Kartli region.
One such young person is 15-year-old Nanuli, who has special mental needs and who fled the village of Khevi in South Ossetia with her family as the fighting raged in 2008. She and her family now live in a purpose-built house in one of the new settlements built by the Georgian governments to rehouse the displaced.
‘I have been working with Nanuli for two months and the changes are remarkable,’ said Professor Keti Lomsadze, a psychology specialist from Gori State University who contributes her expertise to the centre.
‘She used to be quite aggressive, now this has disappeared and she has learnt to kiss people, which she does all the time. Her movement is also better,’ said Professor Lomsadze of Nanuli.
Nanuli’s family accessed the centre through a project working on the psychological rehabilitation of children with disabilities among the displaced people. The centre reaches out to those in need of its services through publicity and also through its dedicated social workers, who travel through the region identifying children with special needs.
At the centre such children receive not only specialist therapy but also basic education tailored to their individual needs and abilities and training in vocational skills such as sewing and enamel work.
In activities like the community involvement of its social workers the centre is also working on dispelling the stigma still attached to disability in Georgia and provides a haven for some families who might previously have confined their disabled child to the home. The centre also works to educate parents and caregivers about the needs and rights of children with disabilities and several parents work as caregivers at the centre.
The pervading emotion at the Gori centre is hope – an emotion which is expressed by staff and children alike.
‘We want to go on working with these children. Our greatest hope is to secure enough funding so that we do not have to send them home. It is so rewarding to work with these children”, said Tina Begravadze, the director of the centre.
‘You give a lot, but you receive so much love from them too,’ she said.
The staff receives not only love, but the pleasure of seeing the children striving to fulfil their potential, whatever that may be.
Nine-year-old Niko Lotishvili’s place at the centre is funded by UNICEF. A noticeably sharp and intelligent child, he cannot walk at all.
Niko comes from a nearby village. He goes to regular school and enjoys attending the centre three days a week.
‘I want to be a doctor when I grow up,’ he told us. ‘I want to treat people and cure them,’ he said.
With the support of the staff at the centre and the benefits brought to him by the specialist facilities and therapies there, Niko’s dreams stand a fighting chance of coming true.