One wish

Georgia, October 17, 2002

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    Levan, 13, meets with visiting professional soccer players from Great Britain. Staff members say that outings such as these have helped him gain confidence and have made him more social. Photo: Tamuna Kvaratskhelia/Mercy Corps Photo:

In many ways Levan is like any 13-year-old boy in any country around the world. He is bright, inquisitive and has a passion for sports.

"My wish is to become a soccer player, the best shooter on the national soccer team and to win the world championship," he says.

A seventh grader living in the Georgia, a former Soviet Republic located in the Caucasus, Levan faces a set of challenges that are uncommon to most boys his age.

When he was three years old Levan was diagnosed with progressive muscular dystrophy, a hereditary degenerative disorder characterized by gradual weakening and wasting of the muscles. Initially the disorder was not severe enough to prevent him from attending school with his three brothers. But by the time he reached the fourth grade, Levan needed a wheelchair to get around and was unable to attend school anymore. He now receives tutoring once a week from a teacher that visits his home.

In Georgia, like many other nations around the world, there are both physical and societal barriers for people with disabilities, especially those in wheelchairs. A lack of wheelchair accessible facilities such as schools, stores and businesses makes even an ordinary outing an arduous challenge.

In addition to the infrastructure limitations, in many communities around Georgia people with disabilities are not treated as fully participating members of society. Their handicap is perceived as a medical issue rather than a civil rights issue, something that should be left to doctors to address.

A local organization in Georgia Library for the Disabled is working to change these perceptions and to help children like Levan integrate into society. With funding assistance from Mercy Corps, the organization is operating a "Be My Rainbow" program, which brings together children with disabilities, as well as their parents, for fun outings to public places like the zoo and circus. By meeting children with similar challenges, the families come to understand that they are not alone.

At first the program staff noticed that Levan was shy around the other children. But that all changed one day when he was invited to a soccer stadium to meet with soccer players from Great Britain. Together with the other children he was brought to the middle of the field where he was able to play with the professional players.

In the weeks following what he called a "dream day," Levan has become much more social and talkative according to his parents. He is also excited to be enrolled in a new program, run by Library for the Disabled and funded by Mercy Corps, that is assisting the integration of disabled children into mainstream schools.

Mercy Corps' partnership with Library for the Disabled is part of its East Georgia Community Mobilization Initiative. Launched in September 2000, the four-year umbrella grant program is funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID). With community mobilization as its primary goal, Mercy Corps awards grants to local groups and non-governmental organizations for projects such as winterization of homes, health care, education, local economic development, environmental protection, human rights advocacy, and activities that support the role of women and build bridges among diverse communities.