Best Buddies Poland
The staff from Foundation Jas i Malgosia, an organization that runs programs for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, just completed their first year with Best Buddies programs in Poland. Below, the staff reflects upon why they brought Best Buddies to Poland, how it is working, and where they are headed.
Although we just recently became a part of Best Buddies, we are already very happy that we were able to join this excellent group. During the several years that our foundation has been working with people with disabilities, we have found that there is a great need for Best Buddies programs in Poland. In our hometown of Lodz, alone there are more than one thousand individuals with intellectual disabilities.
The vast majority of our population with disabilities attends special schools where they have little opportunity to interact with their non-disabled peers. Most organized cultural and sporting events are exclusively marketed to the “healthy” members of society. Because the community at large has infrequent, if any, personal interaction with people with disabilities, it is nearly impossible for there to be a satisfactory understanding of disability issues. Therefore, the level of acceptance of people with intellectual disabilities in society is still very low and they face pity and fear regularly or are treated as a “phenomenon” or “necessary evil”.
The only way to change the status quo is to ensure that the community at large, of all different backgrounds and ages, have opportunities for joint residence and interaction, and thus get to personally know people with intellectual disabilities. Foundation Jas i Malgosia, for several years has been leading efforts in this direction in Poland. Our campaign started in February 2007 with the slogan “Different, but equal”. Since then we have worked with several Lodz kindergarten classes and primary schools. Our efforts from year to year have helped us gain a sense of importance within the community. We have held integration trips, sports tournaments, theatrical performances, and art workshops. Through our activities we observed attitudes and treatment of individuals with intellectually disabilities changing. Every day, we saw the distance between the participants decrease and the degree of social acceptance of people with intellectual disabilities increase. We saw a lot of satisfaction as participants drew scenes of possible activities they could experience together and witnessed hopes and dreams blossom within the support of this new sensation of friendship and partnership.
Success with these initial projects encouraged us to take an additional step forward. We proposed collaboration with Best Buddies International to complement our existing activities. Until that point, we had only fostered inclusion in the group setting and we knew that by adding the Best Buddies programs, it would give the participants with disabilities the chance to find a friend through a one-to-one focus. We decided to help our participants find their Best Buddies so they could have someone to call, go for a walk with or see a movie with. We wanted our participants to have an expanded view of the world around them and the confidence to navigate themselves within it every day. We also wanted to shift the perception in society away from negative stereotypes and towards the reality of the true potential of individuals with intellectual disabilities and at the conclusion of our first year; we are delighted to say that it is already working.
The community is more vocal in their support of people with intellectual disabilities. Some people call us or write emails, wanting information or with interest to help in some way while others simply want to thank us and let us know that they follow all of our activities closely. Parents of our participants with disabilities are also very pleased. They see the joy of their children and say that Best Buddies is precisely what they lacked.
During Best Buddies activities, participants have the opportunity to interact and to arouse a feeling of responsibility for themselves and for others. Initially, activities were held in very small groups and it was through these activities that natural pairings emerged spontaneously. From those pairings, we witnessed genuine amazing friendships develop over the course of the year.
What is most important for us? The smiles on the faces of our Best Buddies participants with and without disabilities alike and the shared dream that the perception of people with intellectual disabilities, through Best Buddies Poland, will radically change our country for the better.