Five days of freedom

Blog written by Lika Barabadze , link worker in “Caucasus Sub-Regional Social Inclusion of Children with Disabilities”. project.

“I believe it is impossible to work on a specific aspect of human rights without keeping the big picture in mind; it is impossible to work on disability issues while being prejudiced against other groups; and it is impossible to work only on one issue, in isolation.

“For this reason, the best thing about the parent-children summer school that took place in Bakurini involving 12 parents and 15 children from Samtskhe-Javakheti region, was not the fact that parents received training, but instead that participants opened up slowly, day after day. I knew the battle had been won, when reserved, quiet moms started exercising at the hotel gym at night, after they put their kids to sleep.

“In the beginning, they were not sure what to do with this new-found freedom. Some tried to avoid attending the trainings, but we told them that it was a necessary; otherwise, they could not stay. Some were extremely shy. Timidly, they let us know about their kids’ needs. We tried to help each of them to the best of our ability.

“Parents soon became familiar with the schedule and to the fact that their reasonable requests were satisfied. They started bonding with each other and forming friendships. Many times we would hear laughter from the hotel rooms – some women naturally took the roles of hosts, while others assembled regularly in their temporary living quarters. They brought coffee and shared jokes.

“Each day started with sharing. A consultant engaged with participants and set the tone for the day. Afterwards, trainees talked with other guest speakers from Borjomi Parent Club  and individuals who had reached success despite limitations that Georgian society places on individuals with mental or physical challenges; they watched documentary films; participants listened to others’ struggles and success stories.

“The parents also went through an “independent living crash course”: they met with a psychologist, a speech therapist, a physical therapist as well as an occupational therapist. The training was as practical as possible. Each specialist presented and discussed their work, talked about independent life skills, behaviour management and means of communication. However, after their short presentations, the specialists answered questions and most importantly demonstrated everything in practice.

“The occupational therapist sat down with the participants during lunch and showed them how to let their kids eat independently, with minimal parent input; she demonstrated effective ways of picking up children, without hurting their spines. She monitored the processes of hygiene and self-care.

“The physical therapist worked with children, while parents sat nearby and learned massage techniques. Afterwards, they practiced under supervision.

“All of the staff members continuously practiced behaviour management interventions with the children. Every time there was a problematic situation (for instance, if kids were reluctant to take turns or hit each other), the psychologists intervened and implemented strategies discussed during the presentations. Sometimes, the situations required immediate intervention – in this case parents received individual consultations.

“Many participants were genuinely concerned in the beginning, but after several interventions (including holding a child during a tantrum and time out), they started trusting us and let us work as we saw fit. The behaviour management intervention proved to be successful – by the end of five days one kid stopped hitting others and others stopped crying to get attention. As the parents witnessed this transformation, they too learned, not because some trainer told them to do so, but because they wanted to become part of the process.

“Not everything at the school was easy. One day a husband visited and wanted take his wife and child away. After unresponsive reasoning, we offered to let him to stay for the night. That way he could personally see how his wife and children were spending their time. Family conflict was avoided and he likely reported situation back to his community. All was safe at the school. All was good.

“Challenges and solutions such problems as these call for specific training. Hands-on learning and personal connections are impossible unless parents leave their homes and experience a different kind of setting for a longer period of time. Trainings, even very good ones, mean several hours of sitting in a room, listening to “experts” and in a good case, participating in exercises. However, trainees are often only partly attending training as they are also worrying about planning their evenings, about transportation, chores, and everyday problems. Consequently, they take home only portion of the information.

“Summer school, however, is different. Learning takes place all the time. An evening stroll with children can turn into positive a negative reinforcement lesson. Every lunch is a practical lesson. Every evening is an informal group therapy. Parents don’t learn information here. They experience it.

“For this reason, the school was not only about disability awareness: parents got the chance to spend some time alone, talk to each other, work with the specialists and share experiences, while being confident that someone trustworthy is taking care of their kids. These moms (and one dad) who divide their lives between tending to their children’s needs, working in the countryside, cooking, cleaning, battling life’s challenges, finally had several hours for their own personal growth.

“On the very last evening, we had a good-bye party, with World Vision cake and colourful hats. As we looked around, we noticed that several parents changed into fancy clothes. They were laughing and dancing and having a good time. Their children were also dancing and playing with them. Some moms learned how to smile during these five days. They could finally relax. They could finally spend time with each other and their children, without fretting and worrying.

“The next morning, they packed and exchanged phone numbers. While we, as World Vision, promised to meet once a month in a newly-formed parent club as there is much left to learn.