• Early Childhood Intervention

What does advocacy do for ECI? How do ECI services in Ukraine support families during the war? Eric Bloemkolk dives deep into his ECI journey

Image of Eric Bloemkolk on the right and black text on a yellow background on the left reading: Humans of EASPD. Eric Bloemkolk

Our third Humans of EASPD story follows Eric Bloemkolk, Director at SOFT Tulip in the Netherlands.

As Director of SOFT Tulip based in the Netherlands and a member of the National Council on Early Childhood Intervention (ECI), Eric Bloemkolk supports the long-term growth and development of ECI in Central and Eastern European countries, especially Ukraine.

From visiting institutions in Ukraine and introducing good practices to providing support from afar after the invasion of the country by the Russian Federation, Eric continues to play an instrumental part in developing their ECI system.

In our discussion about his ECI journey – personal and professional – he touches on many key aspects of ECI services. He pays particular attention to the immense role of advocacy and lobbying in building support, funding, and legal frameworks for ECI, how he continues to support these services in Ukraine, and how the war has impacted Ukrainian ECI professionals.

How did you get involved with ECI in the first place?

My first touch with ECI was a personal one, as my first son was born with quite severe breathing problems – he went into intensive care immediately after birth. As a result of receiving oxygen in high quantities, he suffered minimal brain damage. We then started to get intensive support from a physical therapist for young children. Through this – and through the exercises that could be applied at home – we were able to help our son develop well, and he eventually developed without consequences.

However, my first professional encounter with ECI is a slightly different story.

In 2006, I went to Ukraine for the first time with SOFT Tulip. I visited some institutions for young children and young children with disabilities. In all honesty, it was a rough experience – I became very emotional because what I saw was so terrible.

I immediately thought that this structure should be demolished and that we must build something else, in order to prevent children from falling into such institutions. This was the start of the idea that we need ECI so that parents can take care of their child with disabilities or developmental delays.

In your words, how would you define ECI?

From its conception, the very idea of ECI is focused on strengthening the family and the parents. At the time, in 2010, ECI wasn’t developed in Ukraine – there was only one intervention centre in Kharkiv. We used this experience to train other day care centres for children with disabilities, and to start implementing ECI.

ECI at this point was centre-based (with the centre being in Kharkiv), and the parents travelled with their child to access these services in the centre. Gradually, we started to develop ECI, learn more from other countries, and it became more family-oriented and home-based. Now, it’s common practice in most of the ECI teams in Ukraine to have a family-centred and home-based approach in their services, with 30 to 40 teams still working despite the war.

Could you tell me a little bit about SOFT Tulip?

Of course! SOFT Tulip is a network of service providers in the Netherlands. We have lots of expertise in our network, including ECI expertise. These are the Dutch experts I brought to Ukraine and matched with a team in Kharkiv to provide training for other Early Intervention centres, which wanted to get started with ECI.

We also formed a team of professionals to train the staff in the institutions we visited, and this lead to three parallel lines of work of deinstitutionalisation that we’ve built up:

  1. Creating family-centred ECI systems;
  2. Building community-based services;
  3. And reforming existing institutions from the inside.

Empowering families is also important in our work, which is why we also involved a Dutch parent’s organisation to train parent / family groups.

Next to this are 3 parallel lines of work that are crucial to ECI: creating family-centred practices, building networks between experts and policymakers, and advocating for national regulations for quality services.

What have been the results of your advocacy work through SOFT Tulip in ECI?

Advocacy was crucial to just have the cooperation of the Ministry of Social Policy – we need this collaboration in Kyiv. We implemented an advocacy and lobbying strategy together with the national platforms for disabilities, so that NGOs could lobby the Ministry, the Minister and Vice Minister, and UNICEF to join forces and push for ECI. We even had a chance to involve the church; some priests joined the effort to make the Ministry really move.

Lobbying UNICEF was particularly important for getting the organisation involved and for ECI in general – they initially didn't have much to do with this field. Now, it's a big priority for them, and our work helped draw attention to the state of ECI. Before this, they weren’t informed of how terrible the institutions were and had no clue on how to prevent what was happening.

Advocacy and lobbying have therefore allowed us to raise awareness in a way that established strong partnerships with important partners – like UNICEF, the Ministry of Education, and the Department of Social Policy – and has lead to the creation of a National Council on ECI.

At the end of the day, lobbying is about networking! It’s about finding good people who share the same goals. A network of trust is key in achieving actual change and allowing for a legal framework to come into place.

SOFT Tulip has a long-term involvement in Ukraine regarding ECI – can you tell me about it and what has happened since the war in Ukraine began?

The war was a huge shock for us all – we have a big network based in Ukraine, especially in Lviv, Kyiv, Odessa, and Kharkiv. Understandably, a lot of panic, chaos, and hardship ensued when the Russian Federation invaded the country.

My worry was that the war would destroy everything that we had built over the years. However, those that stayed in Ukraine after the invasion were working like crazy to support the families they used to work with. For instance, ECI staff from Kharkiv were forced to flee to safer regions domestically, with some going to the Netherlands. Despite being refugees themselves, they continued providing ECI support to families.

I had a chat with the Director of the Kharkiv team, Anna Kukuruza, and she told me how they’re still working. I was amazed and shocked! She said they were used to working online with families because of the pandemic. So, it doesn’t matter where we are stationed – we can continue providing support. They’re also providing supervision for newer and younger ECI teams on how to cope with the war. I thought this was unbelievable!

For this, we did some research with Anna’s team to try and answer some important questions: where are the specialists? Where are they working? What’s the current situation of the parents, and what are their views on ECI services? What are the needs of the professionals?

I also involved a Dutch organisation, which has expertise in war trauma, in providing training in trauma resilience for ECI teams in Ukraine. This type of preparation is vital at the moment – there is a lot of anger, pain, sadness, stress and exhaustion that needs to be addressed. They need to be able to process their trauma.

I also started working on ECI again and realised how important sponsors were. I found a sponsor in the Netherlands to support ECI in Ukraine for the next 3 years, in order for them to keep providing services, and to support their investment in ECI. Anna also mentioned that someone she’s still in contact with from the Department of Social Policy is now a refugee in Poland, but continues to work on ECI law.

Their work hasn’t stopped despite everything.

What makes you most proud of the work that you do?

Seeing our power as an ECI team (4 ECI centres and the National Assembly for persons with disabilities), our strengths, and our resilience. It also makes me happy that the team is happy to work with me! They say that they need the support from Western countries because that gives them hope and strength.

The results we’ve seen show that we can achieve many things when we work together. Having started from 1 ECI centre to now having 40, whilst also continuing to work during the war, it makes me incredibly proud.


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.