Helping at-risk youth manage change (Board games are handy)

Helping at-risk youth manage change (Board games are handy)
June 2, 2020 Адриана Гоцова

Frequent handwashing is the one method that we know helps protect against the coronavirus. Scrubbing your hands vigorously with soap for at least 20 seconds and rinsing off under clean, running water will remove most germs and viruses. Both warm and cold water would normally do, but in cold weather, contact with unheated water for long stretches is far from an inviting prospect.

A leaky roof this winter caused the water-heating system at one of the Cedar Foundation’s family-type centers for children without parental care to malfunction and eventually to stop working. In the absence of warm water, handwashing for both residents and caregivers at the center, located in the western Bulgarian town of Kyustendil, became a stressful experience. Showering was impossible.

Routine and calm, orderly activities are essential to the well-being of the center’s residents, who have both physical and intellectual impairments, so many found it difficult to understand and adapt to the disruptions wreaked by the Covid-19 outbreak. Predictably, the ban on extracurricular activities and trips outside, confinement within the facility grounds, the ubiquitous smell of disinfectant, and the mandatory wearing of face masks caused anxiety and fear. Having to wash in cold water was one distressing change too many.

“In the beginning, it was particularly difficult,” says Alexandrina Dimitrova, Cedar’s executive director. “They’d ask, ‘Why can’t we go out? Why can’t we see friends?’ We had to explain things to everyone, to calm them down. They have a harder time dealing with change.”

Existential emergencies like a broken water heater have the power to disrupt life like few other events do, so fixing the problem became top priority, even as the center’s staff continued to provide nurturing care to its residents. Cedar identified a fair-priced replacement heater and negotiated a good rate with a local firm for its installation. All they had to do now was find the money to pay for the equipment and service.

A social services provider, the Cedar Foundation draws nearly 60% of its budget from state subsidies. State support, however, allows it to offer only basic care: a roof, meals, and enough staff to tend to the essential needs of residents at the nine centers in two cities run by the foundation. But Cedar aims higher: it strives to give the best possible care so that every child can achieve his or her full potential. To be able to hire sufficient caregivers, therapists, and educators, provide staff with ongoing training and support, and ensure its services address every child’s needs, Cedar relies on donations. It is private support they turn to in emergencies like the broken water heater as well.

Cedar raised a third of the necessary amount to repair the heater thanks to individual donations through Bulgarian fundraising site Platformata.bg. A grant from the StandingTogether program of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and US Embassy Sofia covered the difference. The new heater was soon in place, and handwashing at the Kyustendil center became a more agreeable experience.

That particular hurdle was overcome, but other challenges remain.

Nearly one hundred children and young adults rely on Cedar’s services at eight residential centers and one daytime facility in Kyustendil and Kazanlak; since Cedar’s founding in 2005, nearly 3,000 individuals have benefited from its work. Many of the children and young adults in Cedar’s care have moderate to severe disabilities demanding 24/7 support and specialized therapy. Most residents are capable of some form of learning and take special classes. For Cedar’s staff, no child is beyond help and every child deserves love, care, and the opportunity to learn and grow to the full extent of his or her abilities.

Getting there requires long-term commitment—“very small steps over time,” as Ms. Dimitrova puts it, adding that it is humbling to see “how impactful good care is and how much you change the life of each one of these kids.” All individuals in the foundation’s care experience noticeable improvement in their behavior and skills over time, while a handful of them have even gone on to lead independent lives.

“Every child or young adult requires an individual approach, which may change with the changes they experience in their lives. The important thing is that they feel secure that they are not alone. We give them this security,” Ms. Dimitrova says.

Individual work with speech, physical, and art therapists, regular counseling, around-the-clock care, and specialized skills training involve considerable investment. The Covid-19 outbreak has put additional pressure on the foundation’s already overstretched budget and removed an importance source of fundraising income: events. Cedar was among the first NGOs to pioneer charity balls in Bulgaria and, before the outbreak, organized regular quizzes and donor get-togethers, which over the years helped it cultivate many repeat supporters. “Our donors feel like they are part of a community, and they are proud to belong to it,” Ms. Dimitrova says. The crisis, however, has made it more difficult for them to give.

She is optimistic, however, saying: “Little by little we are adapting.” She is particularly proud that although many of the caregivers at Cedar’s centers are in the high-risk group for infection, and employees with small children have to arrange for alternative childcare, all of them keep going to work and even put in longer hours.

And amid all the havoc the virus wrought for millions, the lockdown hasn’t been all bad for Cedar residents. “The positive thing is that they grew closer together and closer to the people caring for them. The family feeling is stronger.”

Source: America for Bulgaria Foundation