“I’ll no longer carry him on my back”: Gero and his family find freedom with his first wheelchair
How mobile outreach teams are changing lives in the Roma neighbourhood of Tvarditsa.
The slow-moving car we are riding in enters, Iztok (East), a neighbourhood in town of Tvarditsa, tucked in the folds of the Balkan mountains. This is where the town’s Roma population lives. And like many such neighbourhoods in Bulgaria, it is located on a sunny hillside with a nice view of the plain on one side and the magnificent Balkan mountain range on the other.
We are moving slowly 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. 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 in the community where they live, at their place of residence and as close as possible to those in need. They visit areas and communities beyond the reach of other services, to identify needs and support families in dealing with their problems. They do so by facilitating their access to various local and central government institutions, as well as to healthcare, educational and social services. Given the absence of social services in Tvarditsa, this mobile team has been appointed directly by the municipality, rather than set up by an existing social service such as a Community Support Centre, as is often the case elsewhere.
‘We didn’t have this kind of service in Tvarditsa, until now,’ say Atanas Atanasov, the Town’s Mayor, adding that what really adds value to this team is that the girls [social workers] serve as a link between institutions and the local population.
‘We must know what the people need, so we are to help them,’ he concludes.
The mobile team’s car 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 Dochka and Hristo’s family. The couple has two children with serious illnesses: Ivanka, 16, has thalassemia, a blood disorder while Gero, 12, suffers from 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 were afraid that the purpose 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 where 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.
‘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 says.
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.
‘One morning they came to my home, took me and the baby and drove us to the paediatrician in Tvarditsa, who agreed to register the baby as their patient.’
Thus begins the story of Sara Yordanova, mother of 7-month-old Isaac, sharing her first encounter with the social workers. Even before he was born, she had made multiple attempts to locate a general practitioner for her child. We pay a visit to her house to check on her and the child and to make sure the baby is growing normally.
‘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 prevention 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 not eligible for kindergarten,’ Kristiyana adds.
‘Our goal is to change the situation,’ Tsanka says.
And they have succeeded in their mission: in eighteen months, they have managed to help enrol 100 children in kindergarten and ensure that their health status is monitored on a regular basis.
As a result, some of the children of Rayna, a single mother of 6, have 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 where they pay a small 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 of clothes.
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 and 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 motivates me greatly to see how we have helped people in need,’ Kristiyana says.
‘This makes me happy,’ adds Ivanka, but rushes 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 established 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.