Tsetska Karadjova, who lives in Bulgaria, knows what it’s like to have a family member with intellectual disabilities. Her sister-in-law Maria was diagnosed with such a problem as a young child. Until she was 18, she studied at school and was socially active. But after that, Maria had to stay home, even though she wanted to work.
That pointed up a challenge: There were simply no institutions that could teach people with intellectual disabilities the basics of a job search or help them learn a line of work. The state took care of these individuals until they reached 18, but then that help stopped.
This is why Ms. Karadjova and her husband, Grozdan Karadjov, took action. They traveled to several countries, including the United States, to see how other people handle this issue. Karadjova says she was inspired by what she saw – in particular, regarding a US organization called YAI. “During the US Open [Tennis Championships], many of the volunteers working at the sports venues were people with intellectual difficulties, members of this organization,” she says.
Karadjova and her husband, who ran their own businesses, decided to create something similar in Bulgaria.
The two founded Maria’s World Foundation in 2012, and they bought real estate in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, for the organization. Their target audience is those who are 18 or older, and much of the foundation’s activity is focused on helping participants enter the work world.
At the organization’s Day Care Centre, people with intellectual disabilities can develop job skills and socialize with others. There is also a cafe that provides work opportunities for members of the center and is open to the public.
“Our main goal is not to keep them here in the center, but prepare them for the real world, where they can find jobs,” Karadjova explains.
Participants learn how to cook, keep a kitchen orderly, and make festive decorations and soap. They are trained by professionals who are hired by the foundation. Members of Maria’s World also learn about meeting deadlines and proper time management.
“My grandmother encouraged me to apply to the day center at Maria’s World Foundation, and I am very grateful to her for this advice,” says Sabina Nakova, who is in her late 20s and joined the organization a year ago. She says becoming part of Maria’s World raised her self-esteem and gave her a feeling of fulfillment. She likes helping in the cafe and making soaps. The young woman has also found many friends at the foundation.
Several Maria’s World participants have been hired by employers to do work such as cleaning offices and preparing cold meals.
“I believe in Bulgaria the attitude toward mentally impaired people from ... employers is changing for the better,” says Maria Arsova, a managing partner of Event Design, a Sofia company that specializes in event logistics. Some time ago she hired a member of Maria’s World as an office assistant.
“Nadia is a very meticulous and hardworking person. She does her job well and very quickly got used to our working environment,” Ms. Arsova says.
The foundation is subsidized by the government and also receives private donations. Karadjova and her husband hold fundraising events, and all the money earned in the cafe is reinvested in the organization.
“At first the fundraising process was quite difficult, but now more and more employers are keen to cooperate and help us financially,” says Daria Hadjidimitrova, fundraising manager at Maria’s World. Several hotels, including Novotel Sofia, and a beverage company are among the long-standing partners of the foundation.