In Symbiosis with Szimbiozis Foundation


An interview with our colleague Hajnalka Bessenyei.

In Hungary, 2.5 % of the overall population lives with autism and mental disabilities. Of this total 85 % live at home, with parents who have dedicated their lives to their upbringing and rehabilitation, while 14 % live in state-run institutions with over 300 people. After Pest county, the county with the highest number of people with disability is Borsod (37.744), with its capital, Miskolc, counting 10.000 people with disability. Szimbiozis Foundation was set up here.

EF: Many parents of children with disability live in constant fear for their future once they will no longer be able to provide care for them. The Szimbiosis Foundation has recognised the need to pro-actively address this issue and offers concrete solutions. What has the Foundation done so far?
HB: The Szimbiozis Foundation (Szimbiózis Alapítvány) was set up in 1999, in order to provide services for people with disability especially from the north-west part of the country. After few years of providing social services, the association noticed that exactly this question is constantly coming up from parents: “what will happen with my child after I am gone?”. So the association started to develop social services (day care and home centers). Soon, their priority became to assist people with disability to become independent and useful citizens for society. Over the years, Szimbiozis Foundation worked closely with the intellectually disabled and diversified their services: beside social services, creating job opportunities, but also take an active role in awareness raising.

EF: What are the chances of people with autism and mental disorders to lead an independent life?
HB: Those people have the potential for almost entirely independent lives, including decent employment and an autonomous living situation. Szimbiozis Foundation demonstrates how this can function with its open and independent living facilities where they offer paid work.

EF: Could you tell us more about the facilities and how the daily work is organised?
HB: The Foundation operates four farms, where their employees engage in farming activities, animal husbandry, vegetable production, and crafts work. In terms of income generating activities, Szimbiozis Foundation has set up a catering company to deliver lunches to various locations and organise the home delivery of milk. They also started to produce and sell goat cheese, which proved to be useful and generated further income. And for the future, Szimbiozis is planning to open a restaurant in Miskolc. The hostel facilities at the farm are targeting mainly those adults that have children with disabilities and would like to relax and experience the country-style life.

EF: How does the Foundation manage to offer so many different jobs?
Actually, the Foundation is offering a rather simple, yet effective solution: they apply the idea of mixed working groups that complement each other with their specific skill-sets. For example, a woman with only one arm will work with a strong boy with a severe intellectual disability in the production of goat cheese. She oversees the process of cheese production and helps to instruct the boy, while he lifts heavy pots or other activities. The business activities generate a funding source which is reinvested back into the assciation. Currently, the Foundation employs 150 people, out of them, 70% are with disability.

EF: What is the involvement of the remaining 30% of the employees? Is there a possibility for people from the outside to visit the farms?
HB: The farms include non-disabled people, too, such as youth staying at the farm’s hostel, buyers of the farm products and participants of the open events organised by Szimbiozis. Moreover, regularly, school children are visiting the farm. The horses, donkeys, alpacas (speical therapeutical animals) and experience parks with games, offer an ideal experience for them and kids can learn from the disabled people: how to make cheese or take part in other handicraft activities.

EF: Are there any concrete plans to develop the project further? How would you estimate its overall impact?
HB: During the years that I personally know the association, one aspect that I learned to appreciate the most is their constant questioning of the work they are doing. “Are we doing enough? Yes, we are doing nice things, but not enough! We can do better! How? Where can we improve?” Seting up the goat cheese production was not enough for them, they have started the catering service, so they can employ more people; and then developed the hostel facilities, which generated even more income. But were they doing enough? No! So, they developed the experience park for school children. And their questions go on. This constant self-reflection and fight for improvement is what makes, in my opinion, Szimbiozis Foundation so special – the constant push of their boundaries, in order to integrate more and more people with disability, in order to provide them quality services; the constant “lack of satisfaction” even if they receive awards, the constant fight with themselves to come up with creative and sustainable solutions for their beneficiaries. And this is so unique, in general, in our societies: the dream and fight to become better day by day.

The project “In Symbiosis with Szimbiozis Foundation – for social enterprise development” has received the second prize at this year’s Donors Award Hungary in the category “The Most Innovative Project”, and was finalist in 2 other categories: “Best Partnership Project” and “CSR Project of the Year”.
Erste Group – Erste Bank Hungary, good.bee Hungary and ERSTE Foundation are partners and long term supporters of the project. Discovered by ERSTE Foundation, the Szimbiozis Foundation received a loan agreement with good.bee Hungary in order to develop its social business activities, while Erste Bank Hungary provided constant support with its CSR and volunteering activities.

Hajnalka Bessenyei is Social Development Project Manager at ERSTE Foundation.