In early 2019, the “Open Hearts” Association for the Protection of Rights and Assistance to People with Disabilities set up a greenhouse farm in the village of Dorozhne, right outside Vinnytsia. It became part of workshops that have been providing social integration support and employment assistance to young people with severe disabilities since 2012. The project titled: “Implementation of an Inclusive Model of Employment for Individuals with Severe Forms of Disability at the Greenhouse Farm of Social Workshops of Vinnytsia” has been implemented because of funding provided through the SME Development Support Fund of the international technical assistance project: “Partnership for Local Economic Development and Democratic Governance” (PLEDDG). Apart from greenhouse construction, the initiative involved setting up an integrated workplace for young people with disabilities and replicating this experience among partner and friendly organizations at the regional and nationwide levels.
Project Director Svitlana Demko says that the Open Hearts Association is working with young people; most of whom officially lack the capacity to work. Based on her many years of experience communicating with them, Svitlana knows that these young people want to and can work. Oftentimes families slow down the development of children with disabilities by not giving them a chance to become independent and acquire new skills.
“Young people with disabilities work in various fields at our social workshops: they craft souvenirs, do woodworking, and make candles and soap. The main workshop is dedicated to plant cultivation. Over the last 15 years, the Association team and I often traveled abroad and saw the interesting and high-quality approaches to organizing workplaces for individuals with severe forms of disability. I was particularly impressed with a farm in a Polish village that I visited in 2018 as part of a study tour arranged by PLEDDG. It was a community established by a local pastor for people with disabilities who became orphaned. We saw a vast farm: greenhouses and gardening plots, horses and goats, and a large cheese factory. People with the same physical abilities as those of our clients live and work there. This experience greatly inspired me, and I made a resolute decision to find a way to build a modern greenhouse like that back home in the Vinnytsia Region. PLEDDG helped bring this idea to life,” says Svitlana Demko, Chairperson of the Board of the “Open Hearts” Association for the Protection of Rights and Assistance to People with Disabilities.
As part of this project, a greenhouse measuring 100 m2 was fitted out with an automatic drip watering system, heating, lighting, ventilation, and multi-tiered racks for full-cycle plant cultivation. Because of the technologies in place, it operates on a year-round basis. The greenhouse facility has a barrier-free environment, meaning that people in wheelchairs can work here without restrictions. According to Svitlana Demko, they launched the project while relying on greenhouse farming experts. Their expertise helped set up a stable plant cultivation business. In the spring of 2019, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, brussels sprouts, kale, turnips, flowers, and all kinds of herbs were seeded here for the first time.
“Over overriding goal was to not simply build a greenhouse but also create a learning environment for young people with disabilities. As part of the project, we selected a group of 16 people with disabilities and 10 people to assist them. Most of them were the participants’ mothers. In March and April, we held five two-day preparatory training modules covering various topics: developing motivation to work, occupational safety techniques while working in a greenhouse, flower, bush, tree, grass, and micro-greens growing technologies,” Svitlana Demko adds.
So far eight workplaces have been set up at the greenhouse. Young people take shifts working according to individual schedules. Natalia Lozitska, member of the “Open Hearts” Association and mother of a child with a disability, became one of those 10 people who assist the greenhouse workers.
“We usually work in groups of 8 to 10 people. My role is not to control but to support and gently guide young people in their work. For example, the task is to fill pots with earth and plant gardening material. I demonstrate how to perform the task, which tools to use, and help to create a safe work environment. I can make some adjustments and answer questions, but they basically do everything on their own: transplanting seedlings, harvesting greens, watering plants, and moving pots. This job is not easy for everyone, since these young people suffer from various degrees of limb impairment and loss of movement coordination. But I can see with my own eyes how happy they all are that they can stand next to healthy people, be useful, and apply themselves. I see how proud they are of themselves working. It is an invaluable experience. My daughter Kateryna, who is 24 years old now, also works in the greenhouse sometimes. She uses a wheelchair. Once I was part of the support group while she was working. I got the impression that I could see my daughter from a different perspective: how she opened up to new things, talked to friends, and developed. I know for a fact that all parents would notice how excited their children are to work and the new talents they can demonstrate when given such an opportunity. It came as a revelation to me. Youth can actually be completely different from how we are used to perceiving them on a day-to-day basis,” Natalia Lozitska says.
The Open Hearts Association rented additional farmland, and now the grounds of the social workshops have close to 4,000 square metres of land where they grow vegetables to supplement the nutrition of their clients and personnel with healthy, organic produce. Seedlings from the greenhouse are transplanted to soil in outdoor plots. Young people with disabilities also take them home to grow in their own pots. They can also take ripe vegetables to give to their families and show the fruits of their labour. For the second year in a row, the Association has been fully supplying its representatives and beneficiaries of rehabilitation program services with vegetables that are fresh, canned, or pickled. Products grown in the social warehouse will also be sold. To this end, they built the so-called “Achievement Store” recently. The quarantine put a halt on renovations at the store, but it will soon open its door to buyers.
“Our number-one priority is mental health of those who receive our services. We have no right to force them to work. As a result, we cannot become a business that is consistently ramping up its output and productivity. We expertly and carefully work on the motivation of our clients, but sometimes we cannot overcome compelling external circumstances. I believe it is extremely valuable that our clients apply their skills: they will be able to use the skills acquired here in the future, such as when helping their families in gardening plots. When we just started working in the greenhouse, I noticed the great surprise of some parents at the fact that their children could do something like this and that they could be trusted to do a good job. Moreover, these young people often perform their tasks better than their parents do. We have people with Down syndrome. They are truly unique workers, very attentive and meticulous. Practical experience shows that once we get good psychologists, social workers, and instructors involved, it is next to impossible to distract the youth from work,” Svitlana Demko says.
The project initiators have set the goal of sharing their experience of creating an inclusive employment model with colleagues in other cities and regions. To this end, they created video tutorials on how to develop greenhouse skills. They were published using simplified language to reach the widest possible audience. In 2019, the Association held practical workshops and master classes to share the experience of greenhouse farming by families with children living with disabilities in seven districts of the region. Also, in September 2019 a one-day training called “Greenhouse Farm and an Integrated Workplace – Progress Toward Wellbeing of Families of People with Disabilities” was held, where 40 participants acquired knowledge and practical skills instrumental to starting a greenhouse farm and creating inclusive workplaces as part of their own farms. The local youth centre “Quadrat” also hosted a working meeting with 30 representatives of local government and the business community, who collectively elaborated a policy to promote social enterprise in Vinnytsia, and shared their experience creating employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Printed materials covering the initiative were circulated during all project activities.
Following the expansion of farmland, the organization needed to use agricultural machinery as manual labour was no longer sufficient to cover that much land. The solution came quite quickly. The Association won a grant as part of a program called: “Ukraine: The Breadbasket of the Future”, sponsored by Bayer AS. Using a portion of the grant, the Association bought a motorized tractor with attachments. The team also bought two collapsible greenhouses that will make non-local trainings much easier to arrange. Association representatives believe their overriding goal is to inspire people with disabilities and their families by demonstrating that viable employment is perfectly possible. The organization’s immediate plans include recording additional agrarian video tutorials and holding master classes in five communities of the region. The first inclusive exhibition and fair called “Celebration of Harvest” is also planned for this fall.
Thanks to PLEDDG support, Vinnytsia-based young people with disabilities have acquired professional skills at inclusive workplaces and new opportunities for self-realization and development. The initiative provided a uniting force and support for people with disabilities and their families. The community now has a unified employment model with support, which goes a long way in promoting continued development of social entrepreneurship in the Vinnytsia Region and beyond.
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