Inclusive greenhouses: how young people with severe disabilities are employed in Vinnytsia
"Don't believe the stories that a miracle just happened to someone, say, a child was sitting at home and could do nothing, and suddenly some pursuit pushed it to a radically new level. Our entire life is tireless work," the project initiator said.
People with disabilities may have special needs, but otherwise, they're no different: like everyone else, they want to study and work, travel and have fun, earn a living, and be independent. That is, to live a full life. The days when people with severe disabilities were lifelong "deported" to specialized asylums because they didn't correspond to the narrative of a "healthy socialist society" are over. Meanwhile, the stereotype that such people need only compassion, care, and minimal financial support is fading.
In the leading European countries, where the policy is based on providing people with disabilities "not with a fish, but with a fishing rod," no one is surprised by young people with musculoskeletal disorders or mental disorders who work in offices and domestic services, production, and agriculture enterprises. Supported by the state and society, they feel confident, have the opportunity to actualize themselves, bring benefit, and feel equal.
In Ukraine, public organizations are at the forefront of the movement to create inclusive conditions for employing people with disabilities. In Vinnytsia, the Association for the Protection of Rights and Assistance to People with Disabilities "Open Hearts" implements several projects based on social workshops aimed at employing young people with severe disabilities: "Greenhouse and integrated workplace is a way of the well-being of families of people with disabilities," "Implementing an inclusive model of employment of family members having people with severe disabilities" and the "Shop of Achievements" social store.
Thanks to the purposeful work of the Association, 2 years ago, a greenhouse, where such young people work, appeared in the suburbs of Vinnytsia, in the village of Dorozhne.
How Ukrainians were inspired by Polish "Bears"
Vinnytsia's social workshops of the NGO "Open Hearts" have been operating since 2011. The purpose was to create opportunities for spiritual revival, rehabilitation, and returning young people with disabilities to the community. Here young people could be creative and work hard: process wood, make souvenirs, candles, and soap. According to Svitlana Demko, Chairperson of the Association Council, the idea to expand social workshops at the expense of greenhouses occurred during a study visit to the Pomeranian Voivodeship of Poland, Gdańsk, as part of the "Social Enterprise for Inclusive Development with a Focus on Women" event organized by PROMIS in partnership with the Polish Foundation for International Solidarity.
During the trip, the activities of the Brown Bear Community Foundation, which helps integrate people with disabilities, impressed Ukrainians. More than 50 "Bears," as Mr. Kuba, a local priest and head of the community, calls the Foundation's wards, work on a large farm, providing for themselves. The farm has 30 cows, goats, and a horse farm. Here they cook cheese in the creamery, take prizes in national competitions in horse breeding and dog shows, make souvenirs and have their own shop. Also, to make it more convenient for people with disabilities, the community-supported foundation built a home for workers with disabilities. Local farmers, friends, neighbors, and ordinary people help the Bears a lot.
The greenhouse in Gdańsk in an inclusive farm was ancillary; here community members grew spices to add to cheeses. Vinnytsia residents, inspired by the example of Poles, decided to make the greenhouse complex one of the main directions in the work of their social workshops.
Open Hearts had a little experience with greenhouses. A few years ago, they made the first greenhouse from old windows on their own, where parents of special children worked. But after what they saw in Poland, the community member realized that they also needed a professional greenhouse and one that would be fully adapted for the work of people with special needs. The PROMIS Project helped to implement the idea. "Now," says Svitlana Demko, "we have a whole greenhouse complex with an arched greenhouse, which has automatic drip irrigation, heating, lighting, ventilation, and multi-story equipment for integrated plant growing."
Greenhouses with people in wheelchairs working
The innovative, modernly equipped greenhouse has a 100 sq m area, and most importantly, it's completely barrier-free because people in wheelchairs work here. Three-level shelves for plants are convenient for people working on wheelchairs. Besides, on different sides of the greenhouse, there's a platform where even two wheelchairs can pass by each other.
They learned agrarian wisdom consulting with greenhouse specialists. Experienced experts not only explained how to take care of plants but also gave sound advice on equipment and tools. The Open Hearts training resulted in video lessons on greenhouse skills. The topic is presented in video lessons in a simplified language, which contributes to its accessibility.
Thanks to the involved technologies, the greenhouse works all-season. For the third year in a row, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, and zucchini are successfully sown here. They also grow microgreens, greens, herbs, ornamental flowers, and shrubs.
Currently, 8 jobs have been created in the new greenhouse, 16 young people with disabilities work here, 10 people from the support group assist them, including members of their families. Young people take turns working according to individual schedules, but as Ms. Svitlana said, there's enough work in the greenhouse for everyone throughout the year, and the harvests are good.
"We managed to plant more than fifty tomato bushes alone, and almost every day we collected several boxes of delicious tomatoes. Cucumbers — a bucket every day! In autumn, we continue to process what we grow: we make compotes, dry vegetables and greens, cook jams, juices, freeze many vegetables, and thus provide vegetable conservation to all our employees. Also in the autumn season, we remove the remnants of the harvest and the surrounding area, preparing it for winter. In winter we prepare the soil and disinfect greenhouses."
Parents from the support group of special employees emphasize that their key role is not in the constant care of their children during work, but in ensuring the safety and moral support of their wards. The work is difficult for everyone because greenhouse workers have varying degrees of limb damage, incoordination, so one cannot do without soft unassertive backing, but in fact, they do everything themselves: prick off, cut greens, water the plants, rearrange the pots. "I see with my own eyes," says the mother of one of the girls, "that they're happy to be able to stand in line with ordinary people, be in a team, and do useful work. I see how proud they are of themselves and their work. At duty, we can see our children as if through the eyes of others: how they open up to the new, communicate with peers, show new qualities. This is an invaluable experience for everyone!"
Besides greenhouses, Open Hearts has leased land for cultivation. On 40 acres, community members grow potatoes and other vegetables to supplement the diet of association members with healthy, environmentally friendly products. Due to the expansion of land in the organization, there was a need to attract agricultural machinery, as the manual power to cultivate the land is no longer enough. For the dream of its own mechanical assistants to come true, the Association took part in the grant program "Ukraine is the granary of the future" from the German company "Bayer," and received the sought assistance! As part of the grant project, a motor tractor with various attachments and an automatic dryer was purchased.
"We can't stop"
But the organization's main dream is to create a social enterprise. "We are very much looking forward to changes in Ukrainian legislation," says Svitlana Demko, "because now we cannot legally sell vegetables and greens. We're confident that our products are competitive and we already have actual proposals for partnership; Vinnytsia entrepreneurs are ready to buy greens grown in inclusive greenhouses. Now our primary goal is to make our organization profitable, and it's possible only after the adoption of the law on social enterprises.
So far, the Open Hearts Association plans to sell the products made in social workshops in the newly built social store "Shop of Achievements." Because of the quarantine, the opening had to be postponed a bit, but everything was ready to launch the store. As soon as the epidemiological situation allows, the store will accept the first customers immediately.
The Open Hearts Association is happy to share its experience with other non-governmental organizations that protect the interests of people with disabilities. Every day, Svitlana Demko has dozens of consultations on promoting the model of employing young people with severe disabilities, as a best and actually working system at the regional and national levels. So far, consultations are mostly held online, but as part of the new project, field workshops for parents and young people with disabilities, as well as workshops on creating integrated jobs are planned.
Those working in social workshops don't have a vacation. "We can't stop," says the chairperson of the Association's Council. "Any simple downtime is a setback for our children. Don't believe the stories that a miracle just happened to someone, say, a child was sitting at home and could do nothing, and suddenly some pursuit pushed it to a radically new level. The entire life of a family with a severe disability is tireless, continuous work. Currently, Open Hearts has more than a dozen projects in progress. The Association's experience shows that if you work with great psychologists, social educators, and instructors, it's simply impossible to distract children from their work. Our intrinsic motivation both as a public organization and as parents of special people is to help young people with disabilities reach their maximum development and enjoy life."