Carried until recently in his parents’ arms or on their back, now Gero enjoys his first wheelchair
How the mobile team of the EU Child Guarantee Pilot Project changes lives in the Roma neighbourhood of Tvarditsa
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The slow-moving car we are riding in enters the Iztok (East) neighbourhood of the town of Tvarditsa, tucked in the folds of the Balkan mountain. This is where the town’s Roma population lives. And like most such neighbourhoods in Bulgaria, it is located on a sunny hillside with a nice view of the plain on one side and the magnificent bulk of the Balkan Range on the other.
We are moving slow because we make frequent stops, as everyone we meet in the street comes to say hello to our driver, Ivanka Koycheva – a social worker and member of a mobile team operating in this neighbourhood. Also with us are her two colleagues, Tsanka Racheva and Kristiyana Georgieva. The three of them are inseparable, day in and day out. The locals know their car very well and greet us with a smile. They talk with Ivanka in Romani, and she never forgets to ask them how they are and if they need anything.
‘I live in this neighbourhood and I know everybody’s troubles,’ Ivanka says, while threading her way along the potholed road.
‘The fact that she grew up here helps us a lot,’ Tsanka chimes in.
‘The locals trust us more readily when we are here to help them,’ Kristiyana adds.
The mobile team was recruited under the EU Child Guarantee Pilot Project funded by the European Commission and implemented with UNICEF’s support. The mobile social services teams were established in early 2021 to provide support to the most vulnerable families at their place of residence, in the community where they live, as close as possible to the people in need. They visit areas and communities that are beyond the reach of other services, to identify needs and support families in dealing with their problems by facilitating their access to various local and central government institutions, as well as to healthcare, educational and social services. On account of the absence of social services in Tvarditsa, this mobile team is notable for being appointed directly by the municipality, rather than by an existing social service like, e.g., a Community Support Centre, as may be the case elsewhere.
‘We didn’t have this kind of service in Tvarditsa, until now,’ Atanas Atanasov, town mayor, says, adding that what really adds value to this team is that the girls serve as a link between the institutions and the local people.
‘We must know what the people need, so we are to help them,’ he concludes.
The vehicle of the mobile team pulls up in front of one of the houses. We are taken to see a family that the mobile team visits on a regular basis. It’s the family of Dochka and Hristo. The couple has two children - Ivanka 12, with thalassemia and Gero, 12 with cerebral palsy.
This team was the first to visit them a few months back. Ivanka Koycheva knew that the children had health issues and decided to share this with the other girls on the team. But before the first visit, she had to deal with the parents’ distrust and anxiety, as they thought that the point of the visit might be to take their children away from them.
‘This is their biggest fear,’ the social worker says. ‘But because they knew me, they thought it was safe to let us close, so we could figure out how best to help their children get the treatment they needed,’ Ivanka adds.
‘No one ever came to ask how we were,’ Dochka says, standing behind the wheelchair in which Gero sits, smiling.
‘How are you, Gero? Have you taught yourself to drive this thing yet?’ Tsanka asks.
‘Yeah,’ the boy replies and demonstrates his skill in spinning the wheels.
To him, this is a whole new experience. Though already 12, Gero has never had a wheelchair to ride in before.
‘We would carry him on our backs,’ his mom says, unable to hold back the tears at the memory, but her face breaks into a smile, as today she is happy.
‘Before he turned 7, it was easy, because he didn’t weigh much. But then ... it became very difficult,’ his father adds.
The family still finds it hard to believe that some social workers just came, asked them what they needed and then came back with a wheelchair...
‘When we first came, we found Gero crawling on the floor! It was a sight I’ll never forget,’ Kristiyana recalls.
‘We decided we should do something. We contacted the Social Assistance Agency and they directed us to the Disabled persons’ Club in Tvarditsa, where we found out what documents we needed to file in order to obtain a suitable wheelchair,’ she explains with a lightness in her voice, as though the administrative process was not long and arduous at all.
‘The first words of Gero’s mom were: “I’ll no longer carry him on my back.
He’s never been to the town square in Tvarditsa. Now I can push him in his wheelchair all the way there”,’ Tsanka reminisces.
But the team’s support for the family did not end there. They also help with information about how the elder daughter can get treatment. Whenever the couple needs to fill out forms or visit an institution, the team is there to help.
"They came in one morning, picked me up with the baby, and drove me to a pediatrician in Tvarditsa who agreed to sign us up."
This is how Sara Yordanova, the mother of 7-month-old Isaac, begins the story of her first meeting with social workers. Even before his birth, she made numerous attempts to find a personal doctor for the child. We visit her to see how the baby's upbringing is going and if everything is okay.
‘Everybody would explain to me how busy they all were, and that there were no vacancies in the medical centres, and all of that drove me to despair. I didn’t know what to do,’ Sara adds.
‘The problem was that there’s no general practitioner assigned to this neighbourhood,’ Ivanka explains. ‘And it is our goal to make sure that every child born here should get prophylactic check-ups by a general practitioner,’ she goes on to add.
‘It is for this reason that many of the children are not properly vaccinated. Which makes them ineligible for kindergarten,’ Kristiyana adds.
‘Our goal is to change the situation,’ Tsanka says.
And they succeed in that: in eighteen months, they have managed to help enrol 100 children in kindergarten and to make sure that their health status is monitored on a regular basis.
Thus some of the children of Rayna, a single mother of 6, will also be secured a place in kindergarten with the assistance of the mobile team. They were abandoned by their father. There have been days when they would go hungry and have no roof over their heads. Now they live in an old house for a token rent, which nonetheless is a heavy burden for Rayna.
‘We decided we could not allow those children to starve.
So we went to a grocery store and bought enough food to last them for a couple of days,’ Tsanka says. Their story touched her deeply and now she keeps helping them all the time with whatever she can.
‘Here are some clothes I gathered from my own little girl, she has now grown out of them,’ she tells Rayna, handing her a full bag.
Rayna herself admits that since the team first visited her, she has been feeling more at ease, as though she is no longer alone. It was hard for her to meet the eligibility requirements for a kindergarten for her children; she didn’t have the money to buy them the basic essentials like pyjamas, slippers, clothes...
‘They helped me as if they were my own mother, father, brother... It feels so good having them in my life,’ the woman says excitedly.
‘Ever since I was a child, I have been taught to help people, to give part of myself to someone else,’
- Tsanka says, as we leave Rayna’s home.
‘It greatly motivates me to see how we have helped people in need,’ Kristiyana says.
‘This makes me happy,’ adds Ivanka, but hurries to admit that she has another motivation, too.
‘I want to change the way people think about the Roma. There are people among us who are willing to work, to change their situation. I want to set an example of such a change of attitude,’ she adds.
A total of 7 mobile teams have been created for field work with vulnerable communities within the framework of the European Child Guarantee Pilot Project. The project is funded by the European Commission and is implemented with UNICEF’s support.
A total of 22 additional social workers and assistants have been recruited at the Community Support Centres (CSCs) and other social services for risk prevention and support of children and their families in the pilot municipalities – Burgas, Kazanlak, Kotel, Sliven, Sredets, Stara Zagora and Tvarditsa.
The task of such mobile teams is to provide integrated support to hard-to-reach children and families, to map their specific vulnerabilities and undertake measures to address them. Such support includes provision of information and guidance, consulting, referral to services; measures to avert truancy and dropping out of school; facilitating access to health, educational and social services and assistance; development and implementation of programs for prevention of early marriages, family planning and prevention of family separations. The teams work together with the social assistance services and child protection units on joint cases to provide comprehensive support to both parents and children.
Between March 2021 and September 2022, the teams have served a total of 2,996 children and 2,183 parents in vulnerable situations.