Step Forward Social Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) is implementing the “Hand in Hand” project with the financial support of the Izmirlian Foundation. The beneficiaries are 16-year-old young people with autism spectrum disorder who have limited working opportunities due to this neurological disorder. The objective of the project is to empower socially vulnerable groups and social enterprises, as well as to promote environmentally friendly production. Under the project, the NGO acquired equipment for production of paper cups and carried out training in the use of the machines for young people with autism as potential employees.
Due to the project, 19 young people with autism work in the social enterprise of Step Forward NGO 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, enabling their parents to dedicate their free time to education, employment, and other needs.
The project has contributed to the financial sustainability of Step Forward NGO, as the profits generated by the social enterprise are directed to other projects the NGO implements. Moreover, it provides employment opportunities and a sustainable source of income for the employees of Step Forward NGO.
Mediamax visited the workshop and learnt 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 that you can help," Master Samvel addresses one of the boys sitting at the table.
Arshak goes up to him, carrying a large box of paper, and starts observing how the machine operates.
“You remember what I told you, don’t you? The machine produces from 40 to 50 cups per minute. If you want to go closer, you press the emergency power off button, and only after that you can go close to the machine,” says Master Samvel and turns to the photographer, “These are amazing machines, you know, they are robot-machines. All the work is automated. It has a built-in program, you turn it on, and the machine starts making cups all by itself. 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 from the beginning to the end on their own.”
The boys and girls helping Master Samvel have autism. In the building of the old kindergarten, located in Avan-Arinj 1st Microdistrict and renovated recently, these young people learn to communicate and follow work instructions. The nineteen teenagers – sixteen boys and three girls – have received intensive training for more than a year.
Samvel Poghosyan, who has become skilled in the production of paper cups during the last four years, says that working with teenagers with autism is not difficult at all.
“A child is a child, there is no difference. They may do some things more slowly, but instead they are extremely focused and work carefully,” says Samvel.
These teenagers with autism have been attending the center of Step Forward Social NGO for more than three years. The center has been operating since 2017, offering a rehabilitation program for children with autism, which includes multi-profile therapeutic services.
The Uncertain Future
The director of the center, Arpine Ashotyan, says that while working with children, she has been constantly asking 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 to find a job are almost non-existent, because in the case of autism we are dealing with emotional disorders, lack of social communication and interaction, hypersensitivity and obsessive interests. Sometimes, it is very difficult to distract these children and focus their attention on some other action or to show the importance of some other task.”
When asked why production of paper cups, Arpine says that paper cups are daily used items that the children are familiar with in everyday life, and they allow room for creativity.
“Maybe in the future, the children’s art will be placed on the cups,” says Arpine.
In the Footsteps of a Dream
Arshak, who has been following our conversation all along, is sixteen years old.
According to the specialists, the teenager with autism has made great progress during these three years, making friends and setting a goal to start working here by all means.
“I am very interested in the production of cups. I am waiting for this training stage to end so that I can work. Working is very good. For me, it is the most important thing in life as I will be able to earn money. This is my first job. Ms. Arpine is the one who teaches me everything. I’m so happy to be able to go out and come to this center. Everyone here is my friend. I have been coming here since 2019, first for therapies, then they showed me the machines and how to operate them, and I realized how much I could do,” says Arshak. Then taking the cups, Arshak goes to the table and arranges them into stacks of five with his teammates.
Teresa Avetisyan, the director of Step Forward social NGO, but also the mother of a child with autism, monitors the process and gives instructions. During this entire process, the words most often used by Arpine, Teresa and the therapists are “Good job! Way to go!"
“It might seem that there is nothing special in what these teenagers are doing. They are just arranging the cups in stacks of five. What's the big deal? Nevertheless, a tremendous amount of work has been done to achieve this, so that they are able to carry out this action,” says Teresa.
Teresa’s son, 12-year-old Samvel is also autistic, and during the training process Teresa often draws parallels between her son and other teenagers.
“This job – to work and get paid – is a great motivation for him. While working with these young people, I constantly imagine Samvel. Will he be able to count to five? Will he be able to correct his mistake if he makes one while counting? He will. That means this is feasible, because if a child with complex autism like Samvel can, then others will be able too,” says Teresa.
The Targeted Steps
Arpine says that 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 continuous provision of services for children with autism.
“The children participate in the entire production process of paper cups, from order registration to product packaging and delivery. At the moment, the teenagers are still in the training stage. The progress they have made so far, however, gives hope that everything will turn out so well that they will also be able to take part in the delivery processes. The teens work in shifts. This helps them understand who does which particular part of the work well, so that they can delegate the work and responsibilities accordingly,” Teresa explains.
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 issue: they will expand the circle of the children's social interaction.
“Before the machines were put into operation, we were trying to mimic the work environment – the noise, the light, everything they will be dealing with, including communication with clients. We have tried to find all possible means related to production, so that the children can work and communicate actively. We do not want for the young people with disabilities to gather here and only communicate with each other, cut off from society. They are involved in the processes of delivery, communication with the client, and order registration.
The Izmirlian Foundation has been implementing numerous charitable and development projects in education, healthcare, social, innovation and tourism sectors in Armenia and Artsakh since 1990 with the aim of supporting the socio-economic development of Armenia and Artsakh. The Izmirlian Foundation remains committed to continuing to implement varied philanthropic projects moving forward in line with Armenia’s ongoing challenges and developments.
Photos by Emin Aristakesyan