Elena Lavrenchuk, head of the day care and assisted living unit for people with disabilities of Luninets territorial social service center, located in the Brest region of Belarus, took part in the USAID Community Connections exchange visitor program in 2019. She spent three weeks in Cleveland, Ohio learning the American best practices of involving people with disabilities in the life of local communities. Back in Belarus, Elena implemented a number of projects aimed at improving the quality of life of people with disabilities, and is now developing an assisted living project in her town. 

Even before her trip to the United States, Elena had engaged government agencies representatives, local entrepreneurs, and local community members to build platforms to support people with disabilities and advocate for their inclusion in the life of local communities.

"Working in a social service center, I realized that the day care unit for the beneficiaries was a good thing, but there were other things to think about. The day care unit is a positive learning environment for them, where they can grow and develop. However, once the time comes and they reach the "ceiling", it is very important to help them engage with various kinds of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and local communities," Elena believes. In 2016, she partnered with Valery Pavlyukevich, chairman of the Luninets branch of the Belarusian Society of the Disabled People ("BelOI"). They organized the first fundraising campaign of city events that involved people with disabilities. In addition, they jointly implemented an annual tourist camp for people with disabilities, and launched “My Route,” a project to help people with disabilities visit socially significant institutions in their cities, and to travel to various rehabilitation centers throughout Belarus. 

Learning from the best American practices as a Community Connections exchange participant, Elena was amazed by the many forms of support that Americans with disabilities enjoy in the United States. "I was impressed by how the Cleveland transport company works with community committee representatives. I was fascinated by the activities of the Cleveland Sight Society, the Hearing and Speech Center, Ohio Library for the Blind, and the work of the centers of adaptive sports, primary intervention, and inclusive education," Elena recalls. "During the trip, I focused on interactions of governmental agencies with NGOs, since I knew firsthand that cooperation and joint efforts are key to success." However, Elena's new projects were inspired by her visits to LEAP (Linking Employment, Abilities, and Potential) and the BLOSSOM HILL Assisted Living Center. These organizations offer a whole range of services, helping people with disabilities to live independently in their own homes, to participate in public life, as well as to secure employment and stay in their jobs. 

Back from the United States, Elena partnered with the head of Luninets BelOI branch, Valery Pavlyukevich, to create a Computer Skills Forum. The project empowered six students with different forms of disability and helped them to obtain computer skills as part of a specially designed program. To seek further employment, the project participants were required to attend a social and labor rehabilitation program, and then register at the employment center. This could be done only through the official change in their individual education plans or trajectories and ensuring assistance to them during their rehabilitation programs. This was made possible solely thanks to the initiative and cooperation between the public social services center and BelOI. Since early 2021, when the project was launched, local people with disabilities have had an opportunity to join the adaptive employment state program. 

During her stay in the United States as a Community Connections visitor, Elena met Bill Forester, whose unique life story motivated her to start the project. "The exchange gave me an opportunity to see a lot of examples, but his story became an inspiration for a special  project," Elena explains. Upon her return, Elena designed a project for an art studio and named it “Pallette in Focus”. This project is an alternative method of social rehabilitation for home-schooled children with developmental needs in Luninets and the Luninets district of the Brest region. Elena and her team use innovative methods to help them unleash their creativity and acquire communication skills with peers and adults. Elena invited her fellow Community Connections alumi Eduard Kluisha and Ekaterina Lebed-Velikanova to join the project as experts. The project was launched in 2021 with the support of the U.S. Embassy in Minsk Small Grants program.

Elena has expanded her unit’s programs. Because the unit's premises are too small for holding independent living training sessions, Elena partnered with the Social Service House in the village of Tarasovo, Brest region, to organize practical training there. Thus, twice a year, young people with various disabilities gather there in groups of eight to improve their independent living skills. Elena realized how important it is to make the social effect of independent living training permanent and sustainable. With that in mind, she began preparations to create safe and comfortable living conditions for people with disabilities in one of the Luninets’ centers.  

Since the launch of the Community Connections program in 2006, 775 Belarusian professionals just like Elena have explored American best practices, as well as experienced American culture in various U.S. communities. For fifteen years, each year, USAID provided an opportunity for 60 Belarusian professionals to develop leadership and entrepreneurship skills, and to contribute to the social and economic development of Belarus.

Арт-студия "В фокусе палитры" в Лунинце Брестской области Беларуси, 2021
Фото предоставлено Еленой Лавренчук
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