Today I got the chance to meet with an amazing woman. Her name is Erzsébet Szekeres (Elizabeth, in english). She shared with me her inspiration for starting an organization to give her son, and many others, a better life.
When her son was born, she knew something about him was different. Doctors continued to tell her nothing was wrong, so it wasn’t until later that she discovered that her baby was born with epilepsy. No one wanted to accept him as he was or see his potential.
In Hungary’s current society, he had no place to grow up except in an institution. She envisioned a place where he could live, work and have care in a small group residential home. She hoped for him to learn adult roles, participate in daily housework, and have a family-like way of living.
On January 1986, she established a cooperative with 13 disabled people and 2 parents. This new coop had a mission to bring employment opportunities to those adults living with special needs. By working, these adults would find a new way towards independence in their adult life. While working, the individual also would receive applied occupational therapy to help them develop and grow in their independence.
Elizabeth faced many obstacles to launching the coop. During the communist rule in Hungary, there was little recognition to the rights of those living with disabilities. Her first challenge was to convince the authorities to grant her 3.5 hectares of land. This is the same land where she still continues to grow the program.
Later in 2001, the cooperative also added residential group homes where the individuals can live and work together as a family. This home setting also offers residents care and support. Her ever expanding work threatened the old traditional institutional settings. One of Elizabeth’s core beliefs is that people with special needs should stay in their familiar settings and should not be crowed in one place. Therefore, she set up employment facilities in her local neighborhood and eventually grew it to now include over 13 workshops across Hungary.
Today, there are now over 570 adults with special needs employed in over 14 different types of jobs including: agriculture and gardening, ceramics, weaving, packaging, and making candles.
The workshops are run by volunteers who specialize in the development of those with special needs.
While visiting I got the chance to meet from some of the volunteers working here. First, I met Kate. Kate has been working at the facility for 15 years. Other volunteers, like Abdel are part of a youth leadership organization called, AIESEC. AIESEC sends 5-10 volunteers every year to participate in the workshops with the residents. Through this experience, young people from around the world have an opportunity to build relationships and integrate with the adults living at the coop. Because of this, they can advocate throughout their life for the equal rights and opportunities of those living with disabilities.
There are still many obstacles in Hungary for the Social inclusion of those living with disabilities.Beyond the social prejudices, there is evidence of infrastructure limitations throughout Budapest that result in unequal access to transportation and public services. There is also a lack of integrated educational services within schools and adult living/working cooperatives continues to have limited financial support from the government. Therefore, Elizabeth continues onward as an advocate and visionary. Her next step is to develop a new set of apartments that could accommodate impaired people capable of life on their own so they can celebrate married life and raise their children in a society of respect and inclusion.
The project Elizabeth has created ties together two of the Global Goals. Global Goal 8, decent work, and Global Goal 10, reduced inequalities. She is providing these people with work, and breaking down stereotypes.
To learn more about what Elizabeth is doing, visit her website, www.egyenselyert.hu