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.
Mirjana and Gordana have been friends since they were 7 years old. Living in the same small Belgrade suburb it was not unusual that they would be friends. But they did not meet at the playground. Being the only girls in town with Down’s Syndrome they met at an elementary school for kids with special needs. When they turned 18 there were no longer any educational programs available to them so they spent their days alone each in their own homes. Neither had any contact with friends or any people other than their families. They were home alone and unhappy.
KEC changed things for these two friends. Mirjana and Gordana were reunited when their parents enrolled them in the Creative Education Center KEC. It was exactly what they needed-- a creative and caring place to send their girls while they were at work. A place where the girls could grow, make new friends and continue living life. Mirjana and Gordana now spend their days at KEC participating in the wide array of programs that the center offers. Through KEC’s work placement program both Mirjana and Gordana work several hours a week at local McDonald’s restaurants. Working at “Mek”, as they say in Serbian, brings them great joy. They love engaging with the customers and the staff and they feel totally at home there.
The girls also have another interest in common. They both are avid sports fans. Mirjana loves football so she was ecstatic when KEC organized a trip to her favorite team, Partizan’s, stadium. Gordana’s sports interest are lower key. She likes the center’s exercise program. Her absolute favorite activity is the hoola hoop. She is a master at keeping them spinning and can even spin two of them at once.
KEC has brought these two friends back together and helps hundreds of other people with special needs in Belgrade stay active and social. The center’s programs are innovative and aim to keep pushing the bar higher about what each individual can achieve. Supporting KEC keeps these hoola hoops spinning and so much more.
As a loyal supporter you already know that KEC’s mission is to serve and care for people with special needs. In order to achieve this mission we are constantly exploring new ways to raise funds to keep our programs going. With fewer and fewer grants available we started to think about what KEC can do to help itself be more financially sustainable. Over 20 years of exploration we have had a lot of ideas. Not all of them good ideas. Most of them involved too much effort (most of which could not be done by the beneficiaries) and very little profit. After one idea we were stuck with an industrial food dryer and a freezer full of berries. We started to think (and to be honest worry a bit) what to do next.
We needed to come up with an idea that would use the equipment we had and be something that we could take pride in. Since the Serbian diet is very meat oriented (you won’t find a lot of quinoa on the menus) and not very health conscious we wanted to make something that would also be a healthy alternative. So we challenged ourselves to come up with a natural snack that didn’t already exist on the local market. Many reincarnations later we have the Gardenika Fruit Roll made from 100% fruit. Our fruit roll is a strip of pure fruit rolled up just waiting to be gobbled up by kids and adults alike.
In order to make this enterprise work we had to bring in as many partners as possible. We partner with the supermarkets that sell our fruit rolls (and employ many of our beneficiaries) to rescue their surplus fruit. We get those apples, bananas and strawberries immediately to our blenders and food dryers to transform them into the fruit rolls that we sell back to the markets. Our beneficiaries are involved in every aspect of the work from picking up the fruit to putting the KEC label on each bag. In the beginning we were selling a few rolls to the small corner health stores. Today, our rolls are in most of the big chain supermarkets in Belgrade.
For the moment KEC’s fruit rolls are a nano-enterprise. The production is tiny and while sales are growing they remain small. But as healthy snacks become more common in Serbia we hope that our nano-enterprise will grow into a micro-enterprise and one day a full-fledged small business. Considering that any profits we make are reinvested in KEC’s programs for people with special needs we are sure that we will succeed.
If you are in Belgrade buy a bunch of Gardenika Fruit Rolls each time you see them on the supermarket shelves. Supporting KEC helps us to continue to implement the fruit roll project as well as all our other much needed programming for people with special needs (and along the way we might help make Serbian kids and adults a little healthier).
Fruit Rolls Mean Work for People with Special Need
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