As the summer ends hopefully you are still under the spell of your summer travels. Whether you went to far off places or stayed close to home you felt the joy of being away from the grind of daily life. Most of KEC’s beneficiaries never have the chance to explore new places or get away from home. Their families do not have the money to go on vacation or even the ability to take them out of the city. For most of them the KEC center is their world even during the hot summer months.
This summer KEC made sure that its beneficiaries were able to experience the joy of the summer get-away. Three times more than 50 beneficiaries were able to feel the excitement of looking out the bus window as the city moves into the distance and new horizons open up in front of them. The KEC crew visited museums, cultural monuments, farms, and a mountain. They ate in restaurants and played football in open country fields. The summer day trip is so much a part of our lives but is truly special for our beneficiaries and their families.
As you savor the last memories of your summer get-away know that KEC is working to ensure that people with disabilities in Belgrade also have a chance to enjoy the shade of a lake side tree, cultural monuments and the simple joy of being away from home and the grind of daily life.
Each day KEC’s day center provides programming for more than 50 people with intellectual and mental disabilities. KEC’s day center is special-- different from the others. It is hard to define the difference but our beneficiaries can feel it. Relying almost entirely on donations from supporters like you KEC manages to provide the beneficiaries with nutritious meals, keep them safe and engaged. But, there is something more that separates KEC from the rest.
KEC’s special touch is why Ivana (37), a long time KEC beneficiary, finally found a place that she and her family could feel good about. For most of us when we finish school it is a time celebrate our accomplishments and look forward to what comes next. Some times it means entering a new educational program other times it means leaping out into professional experiences. Like so many people with intellectual disabilities in Serbia the end of elementary school marked the end of formalized educational or social opportunities for Ivana. After finishing school Ivana became depressed and lacked interest in any kinds of activities. She was alone and sad. After years of this her mom and dad enrolled her in a small informal day program. From the very beginning Ivana found every way possible to avoid going there. She even made herself sick in the process of trying to get out of attending that program. The program met the barest minimum it kept her safe place and fed her but did not engage her. Ivana, though she could not express it in words, was desperate to be engaged and to be listened to.
Luckily Ivana’s social worker recognized that she needed a different environment and referred her to KEC. From her first day at KEC she has flourished. She made good friends, enjoys participating in the programming and is proud of her job at the Maxi supermarket where she bags groceries and stocks shelves. There are no more psychosomatic illnesses in Ivana’s life only fulfilling days spent at the KEC center. Ivana can’t put into words what makes the KEC day center different than the others but the smile on her face is proof that KEC has a special touch.
Serbia is a small country with many problems. It is hard to say whether its political problems lead to the economic ones or the other way around. But it is clear that both of those types of problems lead to many unresolved social issues. The country seems unwilling to take even baby steps towards improving the status of its most vulnerable people. When it does take a step forward over time it slowly reverses track.
At the beginning of the aughts Serbia pledged to achieve 100% deinstitutionalization in a decade or two. Today, the few people who were taken out of large-scale residential institutions have been uprooted from their homes in the community and put back into institutions. In 2019, no one talks about deinstitutionalization anymore and what is worse no one talks about how to improve the deteriorating institutions either.
KEC’s mission is to provide programing and support in the community to people with special needs so they do not need to live in large-scale long-term dilapidated and under-funded residential facilities. Through its efforts KEC helped a few of these individuals avoid reinstitutionalization. But KEC could not prevent most of them from being uprooted from their homes and communities. In the aftermath of this immoral act by the government KEC has doubled-down on its efforts to find jobs for people in the community. In fact, it was a job that KEC helped one disabled woman find that prevented her from being returned to an institution. Her colleagues rallied around her to ensure that she would be able to stay in the community and continue to make a contribution to society and remain the bright light of their team.
After visiting and talking with the individuals who were less lucky the one common sentiment that they all share is that they miss their jobs. They miss having something to do all day. They miss having a place where they can make a difference. They miss the pride they felt of making their own money.
Serbia might have lost its resolve to improve the lives of people with disabilities but KEC has not. Your continued support makes that possible.
So far we have used this space to give you, our donors and supporters, a glimpse into the KEC center, tell you about the programs we work so hard to create and implement and to introduce you to some of the people we work with. Supporting our beneficiaries with dynamic programing and working to improve their quality of life is obviously our number one priority. Yet, there is another side of our work that is less emotional but no less important. KEC staff spends a lot of energy “in the weeds,” so to say. No, we are not out there gardening (although some of us are really good at that) rather we are out there lobbying for legislative change, staying on top of legal modifications that affect our beneficiaries and networking with others so that we leverage our power to bring about positive social change. Not splashy but necessary work.
Lobbying and trainings are essential aspects of this work. Back in 2009, KEC had its first serious foray into the lobbying world. We fought a long battle to have the Law on Employment of People with Disabilities recognize our model of work engagement for people with disabilities. Today, because of KEC's lobbying our work engagement model is recognized by the law.This means KEC beneficiaries and other people with disabilities can continue to be engaged in work on the open labor market.
With this small win in hand KEC developed a government accredited program for training professionals to encourage people with disabilities to enter the workplace and how to prepare the workplace for them. KEC has held 20 trainings for over 400 professionals. These trainings gather people from all over Serbia from an array of professional backgrounds including: Psychologist, social workers, special education teachers as well as parents and government officials. During this two-day program they participate in lectures, role playing, dialogues and at the end they receive a government accredited certificate.
Through these trainings KEC has shared its experience in workplace integration in order to get more people with disabilities to work. Our hope is that one day every person with a disability will be able to find a place where they can CONTRIBUTE. Until then we at KEC will keep ourselves busy in the weeds keeping up with new laws and advocating for even better ones.
Marko was born with Down Syndrome to a poor family in Croatia. When the war in the former Yugoslavia broke out Marko’s family needed to flee their home. It was a hard decision because they worried that their young disabled child wasn’t going to make the difficult journey. Realizing that there was no other option Marko, his parents and his brother left Croatia for Serbia. They lived in a refugee camp for 8 years and tried their best to get by. Eventually his father found work and they moved from the refugee camp. Marko was enrolled in a school for people with developmental disabilities. When he turned 18 he could no longer attend school so he spent his days at home. Once at home day after day he became depressed and withdrawn.
In 2010 his mother enrolled him in the KEC day center. When he first came he did not speak much and he never smiled. When the KEC staff started planning that year’s holiday presentation they asked Marko to participate in a group dance. All at once something changed in him. His face lit up as they began moving to the music. He carefully listened to the instructions about the choreography and he quickly became the best in the group, dancing with great confidence and joy in front of all his friends. That dance was the beginning of many small steps that led to major changes in Marko’s life.
With the help of KEC he started working at McDonald’s and then in supermarkets. Now he takes public transportation by himself to and from work, the KEC center and where ever else he and his friends and family are going. Having a job, taking public transportation, singing and dancing in front of crowds are some of the small changes in Marko’s life that KEC helped him with. But, these small changes mean the difference between spending everyday at home alone and living independently as active member of society. Today Marko’s days are full with activity and friends and he is always willing to serenade a visitor with a song.
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