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In 2007, having recognised the need for equal opportunities and combating poverty in society, the United Nations Assembly declared 20 February the World Day of Social Justice. This is to remind us that solidarity is possible only if we behave responsibly towards the most vulnerable social groups, such as people with disabilities. We spoke with Kristina Dragišić, the Manager of the Daily Centre Caritas, about how we care for them, how we help them integrate into society and the working environment and how we can help them improve their quality of life.

People in vulnerable social groups face prejudice and stereotypes every day and are often branded as different. How can we support them and help them integrate into society and the working environment?

Indeed, Serbian society is still prejudiced about people with mental or intellectual disabilities, the elderly and the disabled. These people often fall victim to social stigma. It is imperative to actively try and change this reality. Through a variety of projects, Caritas wants to show that these unjustly marginalised and stigmatised people can be creative and productive members of society. Caritas promotes various events across Serbia, where people with disabilities have the opportunity to show their potential, connect with their fellow citizens who are distrustful of them and talk openly about the problems they have to cope with.

How can persons with disabilities develop their life skills and who are the professionals working with them?

Our Day Centre has a team consisting of representatives of partner institutions and organisations, psychologists, a psychiatrist, a social worker, a speech therapist, a nurse and a priest. This team monitors our users’ progress, starting from a recommendation for one of our services to defining individual work plans.

At the Day Centre, they learn crafts, write poetry and share their experiences. Some of our disabled users run creative workshops for other users where they teach them decoupage and other arts and crafts. Some of our users with mental health problems are quite good at painting or playing instruments, and they also help the elderly. Through the activities of the Day Centre and other services, their quality of life improves, they socialise better, they feel like useful members of society and, consequently, their self-confidence improves.

To what extent does the integrated work of professional services help improve the quality of life of people with care and support needs?

Our Home Support and Care Service offers palliative care. It would never be able to provide quality support to our users and their families if it were not for its work across sectors and institutions. Caritas has signed MoUs with the local healthcare centre, community health centre, social care service, local government and the Red Cross, laying the foundations for cooperation in the field and in the infirmaries which have been developing for the past 15 years.

What is the role of NGOs in the provision of palliative care? What type of support do they need to be able to meet the needs of the increasing number of users and offer better services?

NGOs monitor the work of institutions, but they also cooperate with them. They help vulnerable populations in Serbia through projects and the involvement of European partners.

Our organisation advocates the establishment of community-based healthcare and a social support system for all marginalised and vulnerable categories of population, looking for ways to enable their social inclusion and help them exercise their social, economic and other rights. In these efforts, we are supported by the German Caritas, German Federal Government, German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development, GIZ and the German Embassy in Belgrade.

What are the challenges?

Through its activities, projects and programmes, our NGO strives to build a positive environment where the rights of marginalised, discriminated-against and vulnerable individuals, families and groups will be respected. However, while we may have pioneered many things, licensed some services and responded to many requests, we are still not on an equal footing with government institutions. We have therefore established an Association of Licensed Social Service Providers, whose main aim is to persuade lawmakers to amend legal provisions that hinder the work of NGOs. We act on two fronts: we demand amendments to the Social Care Act and we join forces with other NGOs that have been helping vulnerable social groups, from local vulnerable individuals to migrants, for years. Sustainability is our biggest daily challenge.

What aspects of your work are you most proud of and what gives you the greatest professional satisfaction?

Frankly, I am most proud of the status of Caritas in Mitrovica. Over the past 17 years, it has evolved from a distributor of humanitarian aid to a credible and professional partner in the field of social and health care. Through an IPA project of cross-border cooperation between Serbia and Croatia, we have partnered with OBSM, a mobile palliative care team was established and trained, and a palliative care ward was opened in our local General Hospital.

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