October 17, 2009

A New Project

My sitemate and I have begun working with a new project. It's called the Mental Health Initiative(MHI). MHI is a project sponsored by the Open Society Initiative, part of the Soros Foundation. The mission of this project is to provide social, educational & medical to mentally & physically challenged youth in the villages surrounding Quba.

Though the law of Azerbaijan mandates that developmentally disabled people be accommodated in the schools and that certain services be provided the reality in the rayons is that government structure, schools & the populace generally have an old-fashioned & Soviet mindset regarding the treatment of these people.

For example, amongst the populace there commonly exists the belief that mental disabilities such as autism & retardation and some physical disabilities like MS could be “catching” and so these people are generally shut away in their homes or if the family has money or the connections needed to receive assistance they are often sent away to special institutions. Those who are able to go to school often face ridicule from the other children and are often considered a burden by the teachers. Schools and government institutions, though mandated by law to make accommodations or provide services, often see these youth as a burden on their time and resources and much prefer to send them away to special sanatoriums as was done under the Soviet system.

The MHI is a pilot program started last year and currently only operating in Quba and Ismayli. It is run in conjunction with the Social Services Ministry and, at least in Quba, the office is located in the Social Services Ministry building. In Quba there is a psychologist, therapist, a couple social workers and a driver. An end goal of the MHI is to develop an effective & replicable system so that next year the government can take over the program and it will become the official services system nationwide. Inshallah.

What Amy and I have been asked to do is, on the Youth Development(YD) side, to occasionally accompany the staff on site visits to help create game therapies for the clients and to create opportunities for these children to join in other youth events we help organize so they have a chance to socialize and to educate the other children in understanding their conditions.

On the CED side we have been training staff on how to access and use the Internet for e-mail, sending pictures & documents, search and paying taxes. And in using office programs. We also hope to introduce Best Practices procedures and to improve the currently chaotic office communications methods. Finally, I hope to help them develop a metrics system to evaluate the effectiveness & efficiency of their efforts.

Last week we went on our first site visit. It was a fun change of pace to go out to some of the remoter villages, play with some kids and meet their families. One kid especially, 9 years old and he seems to have MS and some mental disability so that everything he sees is he calls “ting!”. I played with him, taught him how to Hi-5 and Thumbs-Up and we talked about tings for a long time.

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