A Bath native is headed to Armenia this week to help people with disabilities advocate for themselves and integrate into their communities.
Christopher DiRosa, a 2004 Revere graduate, leaves Wednesday for the former Soviet country between Turkey and Iran with six other people as part of the Inclusion Collective, a Denver-based nonprofit organization he founded six years ago.
"In the nation of Armenia right now, they are still very much in the what we call the old Soviet model way of doing things, which is the institution style,” said DiRosa, 34, who’s lived in the Denver area for 12 years. “The government will usually go ahead and take that child and then place them in the institutions that are far off into more rural-type settings, and the families generally have very little interaction.”
DiRosa said the nonprofit, which he said is structured similarly to Doctors Without Borders, works with people with developmental disabilities using specialists and self advocates, or other people with disabilities.
“One of the main emphases of our push is to help the countries that we're working in deinstitutionalize,” said DiRosa, who also works for the nonprofit Center for People with Disabilities. “So getting out of those big box store institution-type settings for individuals and children with disabilities and getting into smaller community-based settings, similar to what we call host homes and companion model homes here in the U.S.”
In Armenia, the volunteer-run Inclusion Collective will work with local partners like Warm Hearth, which opened the first long-term group home in Armenia in 2006 and provides long-term rehabilitative care to orphaned people with special needs who have outgrown orphanages.
Warm Hearth is operated by the Armenian nonprofit Jermik Ankyun (“Warm Hearth”) Foundation and supported by U.S. nonprofit Friends of Warm Hearth. It now operates two community group homes in Armenia, with 22 people living there instead of government institutions, which are still referred to as “graveyards," as euthanasia was a common practice during Soviet times, according to Friends of Warm Hearth.
Soviet ideologies undervalued less productive members of society and believed they didn’t belong in the community, according to the group. Those stereotypes are changing, the group says, with support from the government allowing the group to open its second home last year. The government also started funding another group home unaffiliated with Warm Hearth last year. But more work needs to be done, the group says.
“What we want most for our residents is to be welcomed into the daily life and fabric of their community,” its website reads. “We want them to function with grace in their neighborhood and city according to the gifts they have been given.”
DiRosa met representatives from Warm Hearth in 2015 while giving them tours of smart homes in Boulder, Colorado, in his role managing a program that uses assistive technology in smart home settings so people can live more independently.
On the trip to Armenia, volunteers will work with the 22 people in the group homes, offering one-on-one support and doing smart goal-setting, including encouraging people to be more independent in their settings and become more integrated in their community.
The 26-day trip includes DiRosa, two people with disabilities who are self advocates, a speech language pathologist, a doctor in clinical psychology and a physical therapy-based professional. The trip costs $2,400 per person, with much of the costs covered by private donations.
As part of the trip, the Inclusion Collective also is planning a one-day advocacy conference July 25 in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, where the volunteers will spend most of their time on the trip. As part of the conference, self advocates will share their own experiences and encourage others to stand up for their rights.
The nonprofit partnered with the U.S. Embassy program, the Armenian Association of Social Workers, the Armenian human services ministry, the Rotary Club of Yerevan and Yerevan independent living center Unison for the conference.
In the past, volunteers with the nonprofit have worked in Ukraine, India and Haiti, taking a trip about once every two years, with another Ukraine trip next June.
"[We’re] just taking an inclusive attitude,” DiRosa said, “and making sure that we're collectively working for the betterment of people overall.”
Contact Emily Mills at 330-996-3334, email@example.com and @EmilyMills818.