Arshak watches closely as the paper cup machine works. It makes 50 paper cups per minute, that is why placing the paper and pressing the button requires accuracy down to the seconds.
The entire process, from cup production to packaging and delivery, is carried out by teenagers diagnosed with autism. The idea was conceived by Step Forward Social Non-Governmental Organization founded by parents of children diagnosed with autism. At Hand in Hand, a center managed by the organization, children receive therapies and participate in activity groups. Nineteen of them are also involved in the production of laminated paper cups.
“Most of our beneficiaries lack the opportunity to enter a college or university after finishing school due to their developmental peculiarities. Instead, they participate in group classes and employment programs. We, however, had a different idea in mind aiming to involve the teenagers in a production process based on their developmental peculiarities. As a result, 19 teenagers and young adults passed the training stage and got involved in actual production activities. This provides them with the opportunity to be employed, receive a salary, be away from home for a few hours and feel useful,” says Vehanush Gyulbaganyan, the co-founder of the organization and chairman of the board.
The idea was brought to life with the financial support of the Izmirlian and Gishyan Foundations. In December 2020, while the cup-making machine was on its way to Armenia, the therapists started preparing the teens for the production process. Behind the seemingly simple process stands long hours of thorough and dedicated work.
“There are many details in the production process posing a serious challenge for a child diagnosed with autism. Even for us this represented a challenge considering that this was the first pilot project in Armenia involving people diagnosed with autism in production process. At first glance, it is a smooth-running process, but in reality, the teens went through quite a considerable path of improvement,” says Arpine Ashotyan, the director of Hand in Hand center.
Samvel Poghosyan is also new to cup production. He has worked as a programmer for 30 years. Samvel has learned the ropes on his own from reading books and doing research and now he volunteers to help the children. He has no pedagogical experience, instead, his patience, love for children, and the passion for his work, that is so important, come to his aid.
“These children cannot pave the way on their own, they need to be empowered. I am teaching them little by little, as I would teach my grandchild, by showing what to do and what not to do. But these children need constant coaching and mentoring, for instance, to place the cup in the right place, or pick up the paper after having washed their hands, etc. We need to be careful until they understand the process and adapt to it. It is a time-consuming and constant effort. But all people are like that, each with their own complexities. It's not a big deal.”
One of the most active and skilled members of the team is 19-year-old Arshak. “I am the representative of the workshop,” he says. Master Samvel and Arshak are testing the new paper from China. A few cups come out burnt, which means that the settings will need to be adjusted to the appropriate temperature and speed.
“I oversee the cup production process, take out the ready product and check them to make sure there are no defects. Then I place them in a box and hand it over to my fellow coworkers. Afterwards, we stack the cups in groups of six and pack them in a box. The cups are very convenient for hot and cold drinks. I would drink coffee, juice, water, or tea from them,” Arshak advertises their product.
Meanwhile, his fellow coworkers are sitting at the table waiting for the new batch of cups. Each of them is assigned the task of packing six cups. Maintaining the sequence of activities from production to packaging is sometimes difficult. For the moment, each member of the group has only mastered his own link in the chain. Getting used to seemingly simple actions is the result of hard work. When there is no production, children often forget what they have learned.
The small salary they receive from production is a great incentive for the teens, while the most important thing for the parents is their children's employment and independence.
Talking about his 17-year-old son Gevorg, Ghohar Ghazaryan enthusiastically shares about his interests in photography and a good sense of smell. If there were specialists who could train Gevorg, he could become a perfumer. The young man started attending Hand in Hand center recently. The family used to live in Russia, where they lacked the opportunity to participate in group activities.
“I was the one to bring Gevorg here. We also attend other centers where the specialists work with him. We experienced a significant improvement, a change that everyone can feel.
It is essential for the parent that their child is independent, organized, and responsible. We, as parents, are more worried about the future, hoping that at least they would be able to earn and provide for themselves,” says Gohar.
The goal of the organization is to provide the teenagers with a permanent and stable job and salary, while channeling the profit from the production to the operations of the center.
As a next step, the center plans to purchase paper cutting and printing equipment to close the production cycle. This will help save time along with creating new employment opportunities. They are convinced that there will be no difficulties with sales.
“The fact that the product is made by a child diagnosed with autism, and the generated profit is directed to their salaries and organizing the therapies of other autistic children attending the center, inspires many people to contribute to this initiative and share social responsibility and our vision.
We have a lot of orders and price requests, and at the moment it can be challenging for us to organize the technical processes: to become proficient in the market, master the process, select the right paper and import it by a shorter route, make the right price quotation, calculate the right quantity, but we are convinced that these are challenges we will be able to overcome,” says Vehanush Gyulbaganyan.
To develop their communication skills, autistic teenagers are also taught to register orders and deliver the products to customers. The first experience was entrusted to Arshak. He will deliver to Izmirlian Foundation the first batch of cups bearing the foundation’s logo.
Photos by Emin Aristakesyan