What the war has revealed about ECI, the value ECI brings to us all, and community resilience – Anna Kukuruza
The year 2000 was not only the start of a new millennium, but also marked the birth of the first Early Childhood Intervention (ECI) centre in Ukraine. Leading this development of ECI was Anna Kukuruza, now Executive Director of Charity Fund Early Intervention Institute in Kharkiv.
As her organisation welcomed new, innovative ideas, Anna has seen Ukrainian ECI services evolve massively over the last 20 years into what we recognise today as the family-centred model.
In our interview, Anna takes the opportunity to explain why family-centred ECI is not just significant for families that have children with disabilities, but for all of us who have family we care for. Providing details about how services in Ukraine have continued to operate throughout the war, she explores the resilience of ECI staff and parents, and the importance of an international community.
Tell me about your journey to working in the ECI sector and your current position.
On a personal level, a friend of mine has a child with disabilities. I saw how difficult it was for her to cope with that situation – there was no psychological support for families, only medical support like massages and prescribed medicine. This is when she started to look for other ideas and approaches, and ECI answered her questions.
As for our organisation, we united professionals from different fields because, when we first started, Ukraine had a more medical model regarding disabilities. We wanted to change this, as we knew how important it was to include families in the early intervention process. Our main activities now are delivering ECI services, conducting research, and delivering trainings in Ukraine.
In your words, how would you define ECI?
ECI is about life – it’s not an artificial or superficial concept for families because the main idea of ECI is to include, listen, and understand them. ECI is something that can help many families organise and structure their life in the best way possible. It's also not just helpful in overcoming challenges, but is also a part of building an enjoyable life. A family-centred approach means speaking, listening, learning, adapting, and embracing new ideas that help families find joy during difficult circumstances.
Many professionals – myself included – already implement the core principles of ECI in their own lives.
Where did you first learn about family-centred ECI?
My first encounter with family-centred ECI happened with the support of the Open Society Foundation, from which I received a grant. With this grant, I visited the United States (US) a few times and discovered the family-centred approach there.
During this period, I had a lot of contact with different professionals from the US and Europe – this sharing of knowledge was a big process. Right now, Portugal is the best example when it comes to family-centred ECI, and it can trace its roots back to the US!
When we first started our ECI work in Ukraine and implemented it into our own realities, we found differences in adopting it due to our different mentalities, technical possibilities, and contexts. Nonetheless, we tried to keep to ECI’s core principle: being family-centred.
You work as a trainer and teach other people the importance of family-centred ECI – what are the most important lessons you’ve learnt from this experience?
Before I started teaching others, I had to teach myself. It’s not easy to change your paradigm, and this meant that I had to learn – and unlearn – a lot! Starting out as a clinical psychologist, I was taught the normative medical model, so I mainly focused on unlearning my “expert” position. I had to learn how to truly see parents as partners, and how to build a strong relationship with them.
This is the same situation for trainers now. As a trainer in Ukraine, you have a high, "expert" position – and this perspective can be hard to change. In order to work in ECI and within a family-centred model, trainers and professionals must be willing to unlearn their “expert” position and do it successfully.
How has the war in Ukraine changed or impacted the way you work?
Our way of working has changed a lot – but the pandemic prepared us well to conduct our work online.
The impact of the war also depends on where you are in Ukraine. I was based in Kharkiv, which is 30km from the Russian border, and my region was met with a lot of aggression. I now live in Lviv and a few team members are in the Netherlands, but some of us are still in Kharkiv.
What’s amazing is that the war didn’t interrupt our services even for a day, and that we’ve been able to continue our work. A big reason why our services weren’t disrupted is because we [ECI professionals] are not the main people – the parents are.
This is precisely why I like ECI and the family-centred approach.
The war also affected our meetings with the parents. Naturally, there were a lot of different emotional reactions from the parents and family members, and it was (and still is) important for them to communicate how they've been affected by the war, and ask us questions related to the war.
Last but not least, the international community coming together to support Ukraine has continued to play a large in role in continuing our work. International support has given us a chance to be resilient, to save our professional community, and to even develop it.
A prime example of that support is a special session we had with Eurlyaid, where we as ECI staff got the pastoral care we needed to keep working and keep providing our services. We’re all people at the end of the day, and we needed to know how to maintain our wellbeing in order to be helpful to other people.
To round off our time together, could you tell us what you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?
I’m very proud of our team, and we also have great partners – not only in our organisation but throughout our entire network. It’s been amazing to see that we can still make our ambitions and ideas a reality despite our circumstances, and to know that these tough situations can make us stronger as a professional community.
The war has spotlighted the essence and core principles of ECI and, in turn, shown how crucial it is to all our lives. We all need the support of our family, especially in times of crisis; this has helped us understand the importance and significance of ECI ideas.
Changing paradigm isn’t easy but the war shows us how it should be: family-centred.
About Humans of EASPD
Humans of EASPD is a social media campaign that we have launched for 2023 leading up to our upcoming summer conference in Tirana.
Over the span of five weeks, our campaign will dedicate a post to one of our humans to spotlight the work of our members in the field of Early Childhood Intervention.
Each post will present a unique story of an individual, sharing their journey within the field and shining a light on the personal significance ECI can have in someone’s life.