The non-governmental organization (NGO) Step Forward Social implements the “Hand in Hand” project with the financial support of the Izmirlian Foundation. The beneficiaries are 16-year-olds with autism spectrum disorders who have limited employment opportunities due to this neurological disorder. The aim of the project is to empower socially vulnerable groups and social enterprises, as well as to promote environmentally friendly production. As part of the project, the NGO acquired equipment for the production of paper cups and carried out training in the use of the machines for young people with autism as potential employees.
Thanks to the project, 19 young people with autism work in the social enterprise of the NGO Step Forward and receive a stable income. The opportunity to work has been a source of empowerment for these young people, and their parents are already noticing a positive change in their behavior.
The project facilitated the social integration of the beneficiaries, allowing their parents to devote their free time to education, employment and other needs.
The project has contributed to the financial sustainability of the NGO Step Forward, as the profits generated by the social enterprise are directed to other projects implemented by the NGO. In addition, it provides job opportunities and a sustainable source of income for the employees of the NGO Step Forward.
Mediamax visited the workshop and learned about the progress of the project.
Master Samvel straightens the cardboard in his hands, approaches one of the machines and presses the power button.
“Arshak jan, come and stand next to me so you can help me,” Master Samvel says to one of the boys sitting at the table.
Arshak approaches him, carrying a large box of paper, and begins to observe the workings of the machine.
“You remember what I told you, don’t you?” The machine produces 40 to 50 cups per minute. If you want to get closer, you press the emergency stop button, and only after that can you approach the machine,” explains Master Samvel and turns to the photographer, “These are incredible machines, you know, they are robot-Machines. All work is automated. It has a built-in program, you turn it on and the machine starts making cups on its own. The boys help a lot. They carry the cups and stack them. This is just the beginning. You will see, soon they will manage the production themselves from start to finish.
The boys and girls who help Master Samvel are autistic. In the building of the former kindergarten, located in the 1st microdistrict of Avan-Arinj and recently renovated, these young people learn to communicate and follow work instructions. The nineteen teenagers – sixteen boys and three girls – underwent intensive training for more than a year.
Samvel Poghosyan, who has specialized in producing paper cups for the past four years, says working with autistic teenagers is not difficult at all.
“A child is a child, there is no difference. They can do some things more slowly, but instead they are extremely focused and work diligently,” says Samvel.
These autistic adolescents have been attending the center of the NGO Step Forward Social for more than three years. The center has been operating since 2017, offering a rehabilitation program for children with autism, which includes multi-profile therapy services.
The uncertain future
The centre’s director, Arpine Ashotyan, says that while working with children, she constantly asked herself the same question: “What will happen when these children become teenagers and young adults?”
“In Armenia, young people with disabilities face serious employment problems. Their chances of finding a job are almost non-existent, because in the case of autism, it is emotional disturbances, a lack of communication and social interaction, hypersensitivity and obsessive interests. Sometimes it is very difficult to distract these children and focus their attention on another action or show the importance of another task.
When asked why the production of paper cups, Arpine said that paper cups are everyday objects that children are familiar with in everyday life, and they leave room for creativity.
“Maybe in the future, children’s art will be placed on the mugs,” Arpine says.
In the footsteps of a dream
Arshak, who has been following our conversation from the beginning, is sixteen years old.
According to specialists, the autistic teenager has made great progress during these three years, making friends and setting the goal of starting to work here by all means.
“I am very interested in the production of cups. I am waiting for the end of this training stage to be able to work. The work is very good. For me, this is the most important thing in life because I will be able to earn money. It’s my first job. Madame Arpine is the one who teaches me everything. I am so happy to be able to go out and come to this centre. Everyone here is my friend. I’ve been coming here since 2019, first for therapies, then they showed me the machines and how to operate them, and I realized everything I could do,” says Arshak. Then taking the cups, Arshak walks over to the table and arranges them in piles of five with his teammates.
Teresa Avetisyan, director of the social NGO Step Forward, but also a mother of an autistic child, monitors the process and gives instructions. Throughout this process, the words most often used by Arpine, Teresa and the therapists are “Good job! Path to follow!”
“It may seem that there is nothing special about what these teenagers are doing. They’re just arranging the cups in piles of five. What is the problem ? Nevertheless, a huge amount of work has been done to achieve this, so that they are able to carry out this action”, says Teresa.
Teresa’s 12-year-old son, Samvel, also has autism, and during the training process, Teresa often draws parallels between her son and other teenagers.
“This job – working and getting paid – is a big motivation for him. Working with these young people, I constantly imagine Samvel. Can he count to five? Will he be able to correct his mistake if he makes one while counting? He will be. That means it’s doable, because if a child with complex autism like Samvel can, others can too,” says Teresa.
Arpine says this project will give young people with autism the opportunity to have their own income and become independent. The center will also benefit. The money generated from the sales will ensure the financial sustainability of the center enabling the continued provision of services to children with autism.
“Children are involved in the entire process of producing paper cups, from registering the order to packaging and delivering the product. At the moment, teenagers are still in the formative stage. The progress they have made so far, however, gives hope that everything will go so well that they will also be able to participate in the delivery processes. Teens work shifts. It helps them understand who is doing what particular part of the job well, so they can delegate work and responsibilities accordingly,” says Teresa.
Arpine adds that children with autism can often have sufficient verbal abilities, but cannot communicate with people. Thanks to this opportunity, they will also solve a very important problem – they will expand the circle of children’s social interaction.
“Before the machines were put into use, we were trying to imitate the working environment – the noise, the light, everything they will face, including the communication with customers. We have tried to find all possible means related to production, so that children can work and communicate actively. We don’t want young people with disabilities to gather here and only communicate with each other, cut off from society. They are involved in the process of delivery, communication with the customer and registration of the order.
The Izmirlian Foundation has been implementing numerous charitable and development projects in the education, health, social, innovation and tourism sectors in Armenia and Artsakh since 1990 with the aim of supporting socio-development. -economic of Armenia and Artsakh. The Izmirlian Foundation remains committed to continuing the implementation of various philanthropic projects according to Armenia’s current challenges and developments.
Photos by Emin Aristakesyan