Babale Goes Online
Lia Tabatadze’s daughter is eight years old. She was born with Down syndrome. At the maternity ward Lia, like many other mothers, was advised to abandon her. Lia recalls that, although she was shocked, she did not consider this advice even for a second. Instead, she started to search for information about the diagnosis. At the time, she knew almost nothing about Down syndrome save that parents avoided speaking publicly about the diagnosis of their children.
“I was dumbstruck upon finding out that there was no source of information in Georgian about Down syndrome on the Internet. I did not know to whom to turn for information. Nor did I know whether I was alone in facing this challenge or if there were other parents in Georgia whose children suffered from the same disorder.
“Numerous questions emerged: which medical specialist to take my daughter to? How to help her? How will she develop? Will she be admitted to kindergarten or school? I realized that I had to do something,” Lia recounts.
Today, Lia Tabatadze is the founder of Babale - one of the most successful social enterprises in Georgia. She also founded the Georgian Down Syndrome Association which actively advocates for the integration of persons with disabilities (PWD). She recalls those times when she started to act and took the first steps to help children with Down syndrome.
“I decided to create a page on Facebook. The main objective was to find parents who were dealing with the same problem. I posted articles which I translated, photos of my child and information about her development. Slowly but gradually, the first parents appeared and established contact. Today, our association numbers hundreds of parents. It was not our main goal to get legally established, but eventually we realized that it would be better to work in a more institutional manner.
“Over time we achieved many of our goals – first of all, we managed to raise awareness and even overcome the stigma to some extent.
That a segment of parents no longer shun speaking publicly is, we think, one of the results of our efforts as well.
We are a member of International Down Syndrome Association and we disseminate the most current information in this area across Georgia,” says Lia.
In 2013, a global awareness campaign was launched to mark World Down Syndrome Day. The campaign’s motto was “I want to work”, conveying the importance of helping to employ those with Down syndrome.
In 2013, however, Georgia was still debating whether or not to allow children with Down syndrome to attend educational institutions.
“It had been just a year since schools had opened their doors to children with Down syndrome and we thought that focusing on employment would be out of step with the current reality.
We thought a lot about how to act: to ignore the global campaign message or, on the contrary, to use it to have people ponder the future of children with Down syndrome.
Everyone knows Gigo today, who was in the graduating class back then and we were helping him choose the profession. Gigo inspired me to join the global campaign. No matter how inadequate we might appear, I believed that it was in the best interests of Gigo and others of his ilk to communicate this message. We filmed Gigo in a video clip and started intensive talks about employment. That led us to the idea of Babale. We did not know much about the concept of social entrepreneurship, but we got down to work to prepare a business plan. Things like pricing and other business-related issues were so foreign to me that I thought I would never manage to handle them. I am an art critic by profession and the management of business seemed a difficult objective to me,” Lia recalls.
Today, Babale employs five PWDs. They make angels, jewelry boxes, Easter eggs, Christmas tree toys and other items which anyone can buy. The period leading up to the New Year is especially busy for Babale – corporations order Christmas presents, and invite Babale to Christmas fairs and events.
“On the one hand, Babale is irreplaceable for those who work here, but on the other hand, we do not want Babale to be a place of labor therapy alone.
We want it to become a full-fledged enterprise with a stable sales cycle and we want to expand it as a business. Therefore, the time has arrived to think about a more serious transformation,” Lia says.
In order to make Babale a sustainable business, Lia and her colleagues decided to create an online shop and approached the Europe Foundation to obtain funding for the project.
The Foundation awarded a GEL 20 000 grant to Babale and moreover, provided it with the services of a marketing consultant in order to develop a marketing strategy over the next two years.
With this strategy and online shop, Babale as a social enterprise will enter a new stage in its development: it will expand the enterprise and reinvest the proceeds into social activities.
“I often point out that, had Babale simply been an ordinary business and had enthusiastic parents not worked with me day and night, then Babale would have faded from existence long ago. In reality, Babale continues to operate owing to the enthusiasm of the parents and to its social mission. I am grateful to those organizations in Georgia which support this enthusiasm and assist us in achieving our goals,” Lia says.
Out of all Babale’s accomplishments, the one of which Lia is most proud is the fact that Babale provides five PWDs with permanent jobs. Babale has become a gathering place for the PWD community, where new ideas are generated and new initiatives launched. It is a place where children master vocational skills and it has also brought PWD’s together with children of so-called “typical” development –without this contact it would be impossible to advocate for the interests of the PWD community. “If we can succeed in having people buy our items not only to support our charity but also because they like them, we will consider our mission accomplished,” Lia Tabatadze says.
So far, up to 30 youngsters have mastered pre-vocational skills at Babale; and while they are not permanently employed in the enterprise, Babale assists them in choosing a profession and engaging in inclusive education. Babale also has memorandums of understanding with a number of vocational institutions and sends PWD children to study at these places.
“Compared to what was happening eight years ago, I think we have done a lot: there are other employment places like Babale and we are proud of it. We are also proud that the items created in our enterprise are sold not only because they are made by PWDs. We believe that we are a successful social enterprise model and we will be proud if we manage to build on this success in the future,” Lia Tabatadze says.
Author: Ketevan Magalashvili
Photos by Irakli Shalamberidze