"Kenes" the Island of Hope

How much do we know or want to know about our fellow citizens with disabilities? At the moment, over 600,000 people suffering from Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy and other diseases live side by side with us. If one adds their family members, the number of people exposed to disabilities, directly or indirectly, on a daily basis, grows dramatically. These people often have no chance to attend schools, get a job, have a family or realize their creative potential, since most of them are stigmatized as unteachable since childhood.

Kenes Comprehensive Rehabilitation Centre team and its head Mayra Suleyeva strongly disagree with this situation. Day after day, they prove otherwise to Kenes students and their parents. In 2012, the Centre became a pilot site testing a creative approach to special social services. With the support from UNDP, Kenes has set up an employment centre for people with mental disabilities over 18, where they learn to be ‘useful’: they grow crops, learn how to cook, take care of pets, carve, sing, embroider and simply communicate with each other.

For many children, Kenes has become the centre of their independent living where they are always welcome by caring instructors and sincere friends. Their relatives are also happy about their independent stay in the Centre. Many of them now have more time for themselves and other family members. For example, Maral’s mother, Nesip Umbetova, got a second university degree and is working at a bank. She is proud of her daughter and herself: they managed to change their lives for the better.

The Centre practices such an innovative approach to adults as agrotherapy in a summer greenhouse constructed with the UNDP’s support. The Centre used the grant to lay the foundation and construct the greenhouse and buy seeds.When planning a new greenhouse, the Centre capitalized on some experience it had in caring for ornamental plants in the conservatory. Nevertheless, as students and their families note, open-air activities and ability to grow vegetable crops for all people attending Kenes Centre helped them realize the importance of each person involved and overcome the ‘uselessness’ complex and made them confident in their abilities. The Centre experts have developed special action charts (in the form of icons), which Centre students follow and acquire skills for independent decision-making on a daily basis. For example, Maxim's mother is grateful for the greenhouse, which made it possible for Maxim to help her around their summer house. Tamara, mother of the Centre’s oldest student, Yuri (38 years old), was pleasantly surprised when her son made a salad after taking cooking classes.

Due to the professional approach and experience, Kenes team has scored significant achievements in development and social integration of special people. Apart from agrotherapy and cooking classes, they are taught sewing, felting and other crafts involving paper, clay, plasticine and salt dough.For students with speech disorders, the Centre offers art classes teaching them to communicate and express themselves. The Centre has its own theatre and offers singing classes. Mother of 26-year-old Dima admits that she had never in her life imagined that her son would become a Kenes theatre star. Today, he can sing, make handcrafted items from a variety of materials and take care of a mini-zoo at the Centre.

So, how much do we know or want to know about our fellow citizens with mental disabilities? Yet, we have a lot to learn from them, for example, how to be honest, open, friendly and cordial, have a thirst for life and being needed, despite all challenges they are facing.

Photographer: Zhanna Karibayeva

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