A Bulgarian Boy Who’s Beating the Odds

By Kelly Lytle

| Meet Petko. He’s an 8-year-old boy who lives in Ruse, Bulgaria. Like all boys his age, he loves making messes and swinging, as the photos show. He goes to school each day, learns new things and sees his friends. He has Down Syndrome and lives at home with his family.

Pretty typical story, right?

Well, not long ago in Bulgaria, this story was anything but typical!

In many countries around the world, there are few resources for parents who have children with intellectual disabilities. This lack of resources – including therapies and supports in their local communities – combined with stigma, create intense pressure on parents to abandon their child to an institution at birth. In some cases, even the parents’ families and friends, and medical staff at the hospital, pressure them to choose institutionalization for their child. This is true in many countries in Eastern Europe.

As you can imagine, it is heart wrenching for parents and dooms children with disabilities to lives of unimaginable loneliness, suffering and wasted potential. (See this video from BBC for yourself.)

After the end of Communism 20 years ago, story upon story appeared in the media exposing huge institutions crammed with children and adults with disabilities living in inhumane conditions. Even now, institutions exist that would bring on nightmares for the strongest among us. They’re all across the region, full of children who deserve better. But changes are happening, and children like Petko are proof!

More and more parents across the globe, and particularly in Eastern European countries, are making the choice to fight these pressures and raise their children with disabilities at home. Countries like Romania and Bulgaria have worked to improve their special education practices over the last two decades. And slowly, community-based services to support these brave, loving families are emerging. Little by little, the shift from institutionalization to community living is happening, just as it did in the U.S.

In conjunction with IRuse2MPACT, a coalition of organizations that work with individuals with intellectual disabilities, our Romanian partner Motivation Romania and a Bulgarian professional association for occupational and physical therapists, Mosaic International supports a small community-based pilot project in Ruse, Bulgaria. The program provides needed therapies and services for young children with disabilities who live at home or in foster homes. It also supports some children from a nearby group home.

Petko’s mother brought him to the program in November 2013. He now receives therapy in the Sensory Integration Program, which provides planned and controlled sensory stimuli to help his development in the areas of motor skills, self-care, play and even academic skills. His postural control, fine motor skills, organizational skills and overall cognitive skills are improving! Who knew that splashing in shaving cream could be so important?

Our Mosaic International Fellow, Elin Winbladh, a professional speech pathologist from Sweden, is working with Motivation Romania and the project in Ruse this year. (You may remember her from her year working with us in Tanzania before this new position!) Look for blog posts and photos coming from her in the weeks and months to come.

We’re very excited about the progress being made in the programs we support in Romania and Bulgaria. To see young adults who were brought out of those lonely, hopeless lives in institutions in Romania now thriving and knowing the joy of achievement in life inspires our work every day. Now, seeing how a local, community-based program in Bulgaria is helping children make progress – and supporting parents who are making the brave choice to fight stigma and keep their children with disabilities at home and out of institutions – is truly a reward unto itself for all of us at Mosaic International!

Stay tuned for more news from our Eastern European projects!

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