Classes with girls and boys from the supported living apartments of the "Emmaus" organization
This story began 12 years ago. Once a week at the Kharkiv boarding school, volunteers helped children prepare for entrance exams.
Among the pupils was a girl who had peculiarities of the locomotor system. She spent her whole life in a boarding school and loved to study. After reaching adulthood, she was to be transferred to a "home for the elderly" or a psycho-neurological boarding school. That is where young people with disabilities are sent after children's boarding schools, if no one helps them adapt to independent life.
"All such girls and boys need is a home," Vasyl Sydin, the founder of a children's theater for vulnerable youth, once remarked. From this phrase, the volunteers had a dream to open a home of supported accommodation for boarding school graduates. Later, they founded the public organization "Emmaus" in Kharkiv.
The team of the NGO "Emmaus" and their boys and girls in the town of Nowazz
"Flying House" for two girls
In 2013, the Emmaus team opened its first assisted living apartment called "Flying House". Two girls settled there.
"We spent two years creating the "Flying House". The most difficult thing was to find funds. Friends from abroad helped a lot. One day they told their friends about our girls and together they collected money for the first year of renting an apartment. That's how it all started," recalls Olga Filonenko, program director of the "Emmaus" NGO.
Boarding school graduates or people with disabilities who need support live free of charge in houses or apartments of supported accommodation. Mentors work with them - tutors, psychologists and other specialists. They teach how to take care of oneself, how to cook, how to use transport, how to buy something in a store. At first, tutors accompany their pupils every day, do everything together.
"It is difficult for the graduates of boarding schools to adapt. For them, this is a story of a forced, very quick jump into adulthood. When the world after four walls becomes open, with a lot of people. And you have to enter there right away, says Olga. — Boys and girls lack basic ideas about everyday life. They are used to the fact that food appears on the table, plates disappear, and they do not understand that time should be allocated for all this".
Every month, young people become more independent, they have dreams, they are not afraid to master a new profession and communicate with others.
"One of the girls completed her master's degree at Kharkiv University and now works with us as a tutor," says Olga. - Often, young people are afraid to take the first steps and dare to leave the boarding school, so our tutors tell them about the advantages of living independently and explain how they will overcome challenges together."
In 2019, the "Emmaus" team began cooperation with another boarding school in the Kharkiv region. They wanted to open an apartment for three girls with mental disabilities who lived in the institution for almost 30 years.
“It took us two years to build a relationship with the girls until they felt they were ready to go on this adventure with us. And that's understandable. When a stranger comes to you and says that he is taking you to live with him, it will not sound very reliable. It takes time and trust, which gives the strength to dare," says Olga.
The girls moved into the apartment in October 2021. In two years, they became independent, they move around the city on business. One of them wants to do floristry, so she goes to the botanical garden as a volunteer, another cleans apartments, and the third learns to do manicures.
When "Emmaus" opened the first apartment of supported living, no one understood until the end what kind of work it was. But they knew for sure that they would not be able to close the project after a year.
"This is a promise for a very long period. You should feel that you have the strength to be faithful to the promise you made for a very long time. This work makes sense if the boys and girls are sure that the people from the project are with them forever. And even when employees leave the team or change — relationships remain. Our wards know that they will always be loved and supported in this place," says Olga.
The only thing she would change at the very beginning of the work would be to immediately involve a psychotherapist-supervisor for the tutors. Such specialists have been working in the team for the last 8 years only.
"Tutors are available 24/7. All birthdays, holidays - everything happens together with boys and girls. That is why very often a person burns out. And it is extremely important that someone notices this and says: "You need to go on vacation." Or helped with problems in some other way. Also, sometimes a person can find tools for solving his own problems in his work. At this moment, the supervisor helps to find a balance and restore one's own boundaries," says Olga.
In addition, they and their colleagues are constantly looking for money for rent, teachers' salaries, treatment, food and other expenses. Olga calls this process a "grant application pipeline". But you can't stop him, because you can't get people anywhere.
"When we made cost calculations, the state allocated 14,000 hryvnias per month to the residents of the boarding school, and we needed 15,000 hryvnias. Boarding schools are always gigantic structures, there are large utility bills and staff. So all these funds do not go to a specific person. And we have the opposite. I would like this money to "follow the person" in the future, and not stay in a residential institution. Then the issue of financing apartments for assisted living would not be so acute," adds Olga.
Girls and boys in Milan
A community of residents of assisted living apartments
In 2022, "Emmaus" in Kharkiv had 9 apartments of supported living. 35 people lived there.
Boys and girls were housed separately. Never - several in one room. Sometimes this is difficult to explain to donors and benefactors. After all, in families, brothers and sisters often share rooms, and it is not always clear why boarding school graduates cannot do the same.
"Boys and girls lived in a room with 10-20 people all their lives. They do not have a sense of their own space, their body in this space. Therefore, separate rooms are very important. Only when you have your own space, you learn to take care of yourself, your home, you understand: it's mine, even for a while, but I'm responsible for it, - says Olga. — This is also a matter of treating these people with dignity. If we want to provide quality support to vulnerable youth who had a very traumatic childhood, we cannot take them and put them four to a room. After all, when we go somewhere, we want to be only with our family or alone, because it's more comfortable."
Only those who study or work live in apartments of supported living. The time of stay is not limited - stay as long as you need. According to Olga, people from boarding schools who do not have disabilities need less time.
Every apartment has a small tradition - the house cash register. Residents have to deposit some symbolic amount, 100 or even 10 hryvnias, there every month. And then everyone together decides where to spend this money: on sweets, hygiene products or ice cream during a walk.
"This is how we learn to structure our budget and manage our own funds," adds Olga.
On the eve of the full-scale invasion, the "Emmaus" team took part of the wards to the west of Ukraine to acquaintances and friends. After February 24, 2022, they quickly evacuated all their wards to Italy. At first they settled in the mountain town of Novazza. And in September 2022, they moved to Milan. They live there in one big house, but in separate rooms.
“Of course, we cannot replace father and mother for these boys and girls. However, we are a family in the broadest sense of the word. A family where there are adults and younger brothers and sisters, where there is a feeling of coziness, security, understanding that you are important, that you are cared for, listened to and share everything that happens to you," says Olga.
She says that in Italy the society's attitude towards people with disabilities is completely different than in Ukraine. And he hopes that the time has finally come for changes and understanding in our country: every person, regardless of health or family, has the right to a normal life.