Interview with the President of the “Naked Heart Foundation”, Asya Zalogina.
From building inclusive play facilities to helping children and adults with special needs, Asya Zalogina, head of the Naked Heart Foundation, spoke about important changes in the foundation, failures, and miracles, which, fortunately, sometimes happen.
Working for the Naked Heart Foundation, founded by Natalia Vodianova, almost from its very beginning, what was your path, and what have you learned from your experience?
A.Z: I have been working for the Foundation for over 16 years. I started as an idealist who thought that doing good was the most important thing, which will miraculously change everything for the best, and became a person who understands that for help to be effective, you need to seriously study your professional area, constantly replenish your knowledge, quickly adapt and stay flexible. Natalia taught me to think on a larger scale. When you keep walking on the beaten path for a long time, it is tempting to keep doing the same thing you did before. People like Natalia - visionaries - make your move, not stand still.
What role does Natalia Vodianova play in the foundation?
A.Z: Natalia devotes most of her time to fundraising, but she is also engaged in the Foundation activities. Together with her and the board of trustees, we plan our Public Relations, Marketing, and other strategies. I discuss with Natalia all current issues three times a week since she is the main public speaker and our main representative.
Before the pandemic, the Naked Heart Foundation held many events like the famous Love Ball and many fundraising auctions. What are your plans for the future?
A.Z: Historically, social events were our main source of funding. We are still highly dependent on them. So, if the situation in the world allows us, we will continue working in this direction. In Moscow, we would very much like to hold a New Year's auction in December. In spring, we are planning to organize an event in Rome. And, in France, where Natalya will live in 2022, we might organize something as well. But so far, unfortunately, we cannot name any dates or places. But at the same time, we are developing other sources of funding. Recently, the Foundation has been applying for grants and got support from corporate partners. So far, we have not been successful with public fundraising, but we hope to use this opportunity to grow.
How has the structure of the Foundation changed since the beginning?
A.Z: When I first started working, there were two people in the Foundation. Today there are twenty in the Russian division only. And we have legal entities in France, Great Britain, and Switzerland. And although there are only two employees in France, and one in England, many more people are heavily invested in our projects.
What is the Foundation doing now? What are the priority projects?
A.Z: For us, all projects are important. We started with the opening of inclusive play spaces in 2006 and still continue building parks. We call them parks, not playgrounds because they are really big and feature different recreational zones for kids and teenagers, where children with disabilities can play together with other children. Since 2011, we have also been helping families raising children with special needs. It is very important that a child remains in the family, and does not end up in an orphanage or boarding school, as it often happens. We professionally support every family.
Early assistance projects are essential. The earlier we connect, the less effort we have to put in later. Intensive early intervention, preferably for those up to three years old, helps children with special needs overcome many difficulties such as the inability to ask or refuse, turn to someone, communicate with parents and friends, and study.
A year ago, we launched an accompanying employment project for adults with autism and/or intellectual disabilities. There are far fewer assistance programs for adults, but people really need it. By the way, this is our joint project with The Coca-Cola Foundation.
What are the other government agencies you work with?
A.Z: Besides cooperation in the education field, we have experience working with a medical facility in Tula, where we are developing the project to improve the quality of life of children with cerebral palsy and their families. It is a joint project with the Centre for Children’s Psychoneurology. Since 2016, we have been raising staff awareness about evidence-based approaches. It is our first project of this kind with a government institution, which is very successful at the moment.
The Moscow government helped us a lot with acquiring the building and provided funds for its renovation. We now have a very beautiful mansion located on Novinsky Boulevard next to the Chaliapin Museum. After the completion of the building’s renovation in 2022, the Family Support Center will nestle there, together with the office. The center will not only be a place where children receive help, but also become a base for specialists’ internships and training. We hope it will be of great benefit to Moscow and its residents.
About the construction of outdoor play spaces, municipalities are actively involved in this process and are trying to develop an inclusive component in the regions. We believe that this is a good trend and a signal for us to cut costs for the development of this area. We are proportionally increasing spending on helping children with disabilities and their families.
What changes at the legislative level, in your opinion, should take place to improve the lives of children and their families?
A.Z: Now, every child has only one scenario for the future after the passing of their relatives — living in assisted accommodation for those with psychoneurological needs. Multiple type of guardianships allow this person to have new opportunities. Ther are attempts to reform the current system. An active participant in this reform is Nyuta Federmesser. She has launched a pilot project in Nizhny Novgorod. I really want it to be successful and spread throughout the country.
There are certain gaps in labor legislation that need to be filled so that people with intellectual and communication disabilities can obtain decent jobs. And companies that hire them will also feel comfortable.
We work in many directions. Together with other organizations, we have been seeking to change many legislations for many years. First of all, it is about people-first language. It is the most respectful way to talk about disabilities and differences. It places the focus on the individual and not the issue he or she has. For example, someone might say, "they're ADHD" to describe a child with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Using person-first language, this would change to "the child who has ADHD." And, therefore, we were quite upset by the clinical recommendations of the Ministry of Health on "mental retardation", adopted at the end of August. The name itself is very unpleasant and outdated, quite opposite to the modern term “intellectual disabilities”.
Although we took a big blow, overall we are optimistic. Because I see a new generation of young parents - knowledgeable, confident, and ready to defend the rights of their children. If all of us unite, the situation will change drastically in a rapid manner.
What helps you overcome difficulties at work and avoid burnout?
A.Z: Our team helps me cope with difficulties. These are people who share the values of the organization. The people who are ready to take on a lot of work. As always happens in the world of non-profit, we frequently lack a workforce. But we are driven by enthusiasm, faith, and professionalism. We do not often change people in the team that helps us stand shoulder to shoulder and do our job.
Sometimes, small miracles happen when you work on something for a long time, persistently, very hard, meeting resistance on the way, but then everything somehow works itself out.
Can you give us an example?
A.Z: When I first came to the Foundation at its early stage, we had a construction of the first facility in Nizhny Novgorod. Park works dragged on until November, and it was no longer possible to put a rubber covering on the ground. Without it, imagine how wretched everything should have looked like! But this was the first facility in Natalia's hometown! And a true "miracle" happened, as I like to call it. On the night before the opening, fine, fluffy snow fell. The park looked just magical even without the special cover. It was a very joyful celebration - bright and wintery – with everyone sledding down the hill. We laid the cover the following spring.
How can you help the Foundation right now? What are the ways to help?
A.Z: In addition to donations and corporate programs, we are always very pleased when people share information on social networks about the value of inclusion and our mission. About how to properly talk about people with special needs, what inclusion is.
Inclusion awareness training is designed for companies that work with wide audiences: cinemas, museums, cafes, restaurants, whose clients might be people with disabilities or families with such children. Anyone can download this training from our website and implement it in their organization.
On New Year’s Eve, we will invite people to submit their budgets for gifts in support of our projects.
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