Parents plan to build care centre for young people with disabilities


The parents of a dozen adolescents with disabilities recently established a nonprofit so they can start up a care centre for their children and keep the remarkable group of friends together

“You can see them flourish”

Faced with long waiting lists for day-care centres and housing for adults with disabilities, the parents of 16 Leuven adolescents recently took matters into their own hands.

With their Honk non-profit, they are hoping to establish their own overnight centre by 2017. The parents are getting help from two other Flemish nonprofits that have recently helped realise several similar housing projects for adults with special needs.

In Flanders, when young people with disabilities turn 21, they are normally required to leave their special education school and find a spot at a care centre for adults instead. “But more than 20,000 youngsters are on the waiting list to get a place at the care institutions for adults,” says Lode Verschingel, one of the Honk co-founders. “The stay of youngsters can be extended by two years, but not longer than that.”

Verschingel has two children with a disability, one of whom is 23 and consequently won’t be able to return to her former school, Ter Bank in Heverlee, near Leuven, in September.

Verschingel’s children are part of an extended group of friends who go to school at Ter Bank and the nearby Windekind institution, whose parents also get along well. After repeated conversations about the waiting list problem, the children’s parents developed a plan to build their own care centre to keep the 16 friends together after they leave their respective schools.

“When they are together, they stimulate each other spontaneously and you can see them flourish,” says Verschingel. “If the youngsters were to be separated, many of them would remain at home and spend a lot of time isolated and doing passive activities like watching TV.”

Technical and emotional challenges

The first step for Honk is to find a temporary solution for the children who will have to leave their special education school next year. One solution would be to have them participate in the activities of day-care centres. The parents will also organise as many activities as possible themselves. 

We have to take into consideration the different needs of the youngsters

- Honk co-founder Lode Verschingel

The next step is to find a suitable location in the Leuven area to permanently house the youngsters, by 2017 at the latest. The possibilities include renovating or building a residence, acquiring one through a leasehold, or signing a long-term rental agreement.

At the new centre, the youngsters would be assisted by both professional staff and volunteers, such as their parents or other caregivers. Organising such a housing project is a complex undertaking. “We have to take into consideration the different needs of the youngsters,” says Verschingel. For example, the group includes one person using a wheelchair and youngsters with Down’s syndrome and autism.

But the challenges go beyond just the technical requirements, says Verschingel. “Some youngsters need a lot of social contact, while others need a lot of structure and tranquillity,” he explains.

Encouraging examples

The parents aren’t going it alone; they’re getting professional assistance from two Flemish organisations, Gipso and Inclusie Invest. Gipso, short for Guide for Inclusive Projects and Social Entrepreneurship, is offering the parents advice and coaching, while the Inclusie Invest co-operative is providing financial support.

Half the cost of the residence project will be covered by an Inclusie Invest loan, while the other half is to be financed through the sale of €2,000 shares and other types of fundraising.

“We know it’s a difficult enterprise, but we feel strongly encouraged by the fact that there are already similar residences that are doing well,” says Verschingel, pointing out that the pioneering project of the Think out-of-the-box non-profit in Schilde, Antwerp, is one that has demonstrated good results.          

Also helping the cause of initiatives like Honk is a new decree introduced by the Flemish welfare ministry last April. This decree stipulates that institutions for people with disabilities will no longer be the sole recipient of the government’s subsidies. Instead, much of the funding will go to the individuals with special needs themselves, who can use it to pay for their care as they see fit.

“Through these budgets, the so-called backpacks, they increasingly become masters of their own care,” says Verschingel. “But to make sure that this system works well, the new government will considerably have to raise the help budget for people with a disability.”

Verschingel wants the Flemish negotiators working on the government coalition to take these disability budget needs into account.

Photo: The Honk founders are the parents of a group of friends who go to school together. Photo courtesy Honk