A road map to a better future
How a group of parents creates a holistic support system for Ukrainian children with disabilities and their loved ones, helping them ease into new lives in Poland
To seven-year-old Alisa, there is no such thing as a difficult exercise. Although her daily physiotherapy sessions can be strenuous and require razor sharp focus, with the help of her favourite physiotherapist all seems possible.
“Alisa has lots of energy, she laughs a lot and sometimes has trouble concentrating but the physiotherapist, Ms Katarzyna, knows how to make it work,” says Liudmyla, Alisa’s mother, one sunny October afternoon in Wroclaw, western Poland.
Alisa is one of the thousands of Polish and Ukrainian children receiving comprehensive support and services at the Wroclaw-based Diagnostic and Therapeutic Centre for Rare Diseases run by Potrafie Pomoc Foundation – which translates to “I Can Help Foundation” in English.
“It was the project that has found us”
Alisa and her mother Liudmyla arrived in Wroclaw in March 2022 from Zhytomyr, northern Ukraine. Securing physiotherapy for the Alisa, who suffers from a congenital orthopaedic condition, was a priority but accessing it initially proved difficult due to language barriers and bureaucratic hurdles.
A year after they arrived Liudmyla's received a phone call. It was Inna Bovkun, coordinator at the foundation, who has personally recruited over 70 families for a UNICEF-supported project tailored for children with disabilities who have fled the war in Ukraine. “In the end it was the project that has found us,” Liudmyla says. “I was so happy about this.”
The project provides children and families with a range of classes, mental health support, diagnostics, physiotherapy, after-hours day care and overall administrative support in navigating the Polish healthcare system.
When Alisa arrived at the centre in April 2023 she had gone almost two years without exercise, which had significantly weakened her muscles. Children with disabilities have distinct needs and continuity of treatment is critical to their well-being. Without exercise their condition can deteriorate quickly.
After six months of regular physiotherapy, the bubbly 7-year-old has gained in strength and can play with her new friends she’s made at school.
Programmes informed by first-hand experience
As a father of two children with disabilities, the centre’s co-creator Adam Komar lives for such stories. The plethora of services offered at the centre have been informed by his own experience.
“When we were setting up the centre, we wanted to provide holistic support for families, so they would not have to go to different specialists in different parts of Poland. Instead, we wanted to build a team of experts around the patient and their family and prepare a road map, so they understand what awaits them in one, three or five years,” he explains.
The centre has become a one-stop shop for diagnostic and rehabilitation services for children with disabilities, with more than 90 specialists from various disciplines offering critical services in 20 therapy rooms. To date, it has conducted over 50,000 consultations. Despite the volume of patients, there are no crowds or long lines to the consultation rooms. From the moment you step in, you see colourful corridors and paintings of lush trees.
These initiatives, Adam says, only truly work if those who take care of children with disabilities receive assistance at the same time. “We know that if we support the family, we will also support the patients. And that’s our advantage – we’re not only able to name a medical condition but we also provide different forms of support.”
Fun for kids, a breather for parents
Before being forced to flee Dnipropetrovsk in central Ukraine almost two years ago, Valeria could not imagine entrusting her 10-year-old son Yehor in somebody else’s care. “How could I leave my son for 4 hours?” she says. “He wears diapers, I dress him, change him, he does not talk. If somebody hurts him he would not be able to tell me.” Valeria was initially torn about Yehor attending classes and daycare at the centre. She could not help herself but to eavesdrop on what is happening in the therapy room.
“The staff here told me: ‘You need to rest, you’re together around the clock.’ I told them I’m not sure I can rest, but I will try,” Valeria recounts grinning cheerfully.
Today, she has the time to run errands, complete her chores at home and even carve out some time in the park to recharge. Like many mothers from Ukraine who have sought safety in Poland, she has been bringing Yehor up single-handedly and the support she has received has been life changing.
That October afternoon she was picking Yehor up from his art therapy classes. “I see how Yehor likes it here because the other children are the same. They may be having different issues but they are the same,” Valeria says. “When I see a collage he made or I get photos of him from Ania, his therapist, my heart is full.”
Supporting children with disabilities and their families who have had to flee the war in Ukraine is one of the cross-cutting priorities for UNICEF’s response in Poland. This work is made possible thanks to the partnership with Wroclaw municipality and generous support of public and private donors from around the world, including the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration of the United States.