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"Our children are starving" - Leonid Alov, director of the Orphanage for Children with Mental Disabilities in Zaporozhye, Ukraine

October 19, 2006, 0:00 5645 Author: Svetlana Chumachenko, Zaporozhye www.deti.zp.ua/eng

Home page of the Orphanage for Children with Mental Disability

As of today, Ukrainian Orphanage Houses and Schools for Mentally Disabled Children receive little financial help from the Ukrainian government. Many struggle to survive. Basic things - clothes, shoes, toys, even textbooks are in deficit. Only 7 grivnas ( $1.5) per day are allocated by the State for a child's nutrition.

This is an interview with a principal of the Orphanage/School for Children with Mental Disability, Mr. Leonid Alov.

Q: Mr.Alov, how long have you been working here?

LA: I was allocated to the school in 1982. I must say, even then, the situation within the institution was critical- in 7 months 6 (!) principals had resigned. I was also a principal before I came, but at a different school, not a school for children with special needs.

As a teaching principal I remember my first lesson. I have written " 1+1=" on the board and asked one of the children come up with a solution. A little boy took chalk from my hand and without saying a word started doodling on the board. I was shocked and almost started to tell the boy off, but then remembered that these kids need a different approach…

How are children admitted to the institution?

The children here are mentally disabled. They are admitted from the age of 4 and are with us until their 18th birthday. We take children from around the county, but only boys. Girls with similar conditions are sent to the House for Disabled in Kirovo village.

The division of genders is necessary as children with mental disability physically develop earlier than their peers.

What chance of recovery do these children have?

Unfortunately virtually none, as these are hereditary conditions.

But the reasons behind the disability vary from parents' blood-type incompatibility to medical negligence. For example, in 2004 two twin brothers were admitted to us because doctors did not provide an adequate duty of care whilst delivering the boys.

Also, more children are born with mental defects as the air in Zaporozhye becomes more and more polluted. Majority of children's parents are drug addicts…

Is it possible that a child is mistakenly diagnosed?

It happens. Some children suffer from parental neglect. Very often this occurs in small Ukrainian villages were parents are constantly occupied by farming and have no or little time to spend with a child. As a result, a little boy or girl is on her/his own all the time and there is no one to help with the child's mental development.

At school, these children are poorly adjusted, hence often left behind to repeat a grade or even several. Often, a child does not even go to school as nobody cares if s/he is there. Not even a teacher or a parent. Consequently, when a child is 10-12 years old the best s/he can do academically is to read and write on a basic level.

These children are then sent to us. After 2-3 months it becomes clear, however, that there is no disability. In this case we have to ask the child to be transferred from our institution back to the old school.

By the way, when we point out that a child has no mental disability, people that are most surprised are often the parents. But even then, they do not want to take a child back

Do your graduates become employed after they finish school?

Rarely. Not because they are inadequate, but because there are practically no employers who would be willing to hire a mentally disabled person. There is a stigma attached. But, there are examples where upon graduation children have become janitors. These are the exceptions.

In majority of cases, children are sent to the House for Disabled in Kirovo Village.

Sometimes parents take the children back. I want to point out, however, these children are better off in a similar institution to ours. Here we have specially trained teachers and personnel, children are under a constant medical supervision. Often parents who are motivated by the " guilt complex" are unable to care appropriately for a mentally disabled child.

What professional skills can boys acquire at your school?

To develop some professional skills in every child is a compulsory part of the programme. Look through the window: how clean everything is. This is all our children, their work. We teach them a lot about farming and home economic skills including tailoring.

We even have our own tailor's workshop. Independently our boys have made 118 curtains and 4 cloth-shields for cars. Nothing is wasted here. For example worn - out coats have been turned into many pairs of gloves. Our children are very hard working.

How well is your Orphanage/School supported financially?

We are in a great financial struggle. The school was built 25 years ago. Not surprisingly it needs many repairs. We have asked the government for a budget allocation of 286,000 grivnas ( $ 52,000). The government allocated 110,000 ($ 20,000 ), then took back (!) 50,000 ($ 9 000 ). In the process of building the school, a lot of corners were "cut", hence we are constantly having problems with plumbing and heating systems. We need to change it urgently. The whole building needs a thorough repair. Many years ago, two pipes had been installed, one for drinking water and the other as a substitute to the first. When both of them burst, a new one was installed. This was 15 years ago. Now this pipe is in critical condition and if it bursts, we will have no water. At all.

We need 21,000 grivnas ( $3800) to repair it. I have asked for help top managers of Zaporozhye- based largest corporations such as Motor-Sic, Zaporozstal and others, but they refused to help. Some refused to even answer my call.

Did you say there is not enough money to feed the children?

Yes. This is very disturbing. Today we are only allocated 7 grivnas ($1.2) per day to feed a child. What can we buy for this money? How can we provide for children's proper nutrition? We have a list of recommended daily allowance of products for every child ( e.g. at least 0.5L of milk, 160 grams of meat). I made an estimate in accordance with this list.

The result: we must spend at least 15 grivnas ( $2.7) minimum for a child's daily nutrition. This is twice more than we receive from the government. Can you imagine this situation? This means that our children are receiving only half of protein, carbohydrate and vitamin intake minimum ( !) recommended.

Every month we need an additional 25-30,000 grivnas ( $ 4,000-6,500) to compensate for every kid's malnutrition.

We are grateful to receive help in any shape- food or money. The latter can be transferred direct to the School's account.

Do you receive help from sponsors or charitable organisations?

Yes. Last year donors sponsored the refurbishment of our gymnasium. We bought new mats, balls, dry swimming pool, labyrinth and many other things that boys enjoy greatly. Moreover, we have recently purchased a karaoke machine. Our children love music and would regard an opportunity to take part or see a musical performance as a great treat.

The coordinates this for this institution can be found here or just write to detizp@mail.ru

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