Maria Schejbal brings those challenged by disabilities or addictions out of isolation and integrates them as active members of society. By partnering with a network of institutions like social care centers, drug rehabilitation centers, and mental hospitals, she is developing positive joint initiatives that push both the abled and the socially disabled beyond their psychological and physical borders.
The New Idea
Maria is using theater to create positive experiences for Poland's disabled citizens. Her program to encourage active participation and integration into broader society calls on the support of local communities and therapy and social care institutions in a joint effort to mobilize the physically and mentally disabled, drug addicts, elders, and troubled youth. In a society where every marginalized group is relegated to a special-purpose institution, Maria avoids isolated environments and transforms the prejudices of the rest of society. Not focusing on any particular disability, Maria creates a universal approach where all of these people can meet and exchange emotions and opinions, thus growing and developing personally.
Maria recognizes that most theater projects involving the disabled have had limited impact because they have failed to spread beyond the founder's theater. Rather than attempt to build a large organization, Maria is seeding her idea throughout Poland by providing comprehensive training, workshops, and Internet support to teachers and practitioners attracted by her results. Marginalized young people who have helped produce Maria's performances themselves become workshop leaders.
A citizen-based society requires equal participation of different social groups in the processes of decision-making, physical accessibility, and the ability of all to perform and express needs and emotions. Mentally and physically disabled, drug-addicted, and young and old people with personal problems are often excluded from this process. Their rights for creative living, active participation in life, and actual development opportunities are limited. Society is still not ready or open enough to embrace a diversity of opinions or abilities. They confront the socially disabled with prejudices, anxiety, and often hostility. A number of organizations and institutions try to address these issues, but most activities are aimed at one client group, like autistic children, the blind, or children from urban gangs. Eventually, most of these groups tend to close themselves off, isolating themselves further from society. Although these single-focus initiatives carry the potential and resources for motivating socially disabled groups, there is no cohesive, and interwoven strategy to gather and share experiences with others; communication is almost nonexistent.
There is also a lack of quality materials describing methods of engaging socially disabled people on a broader scale. The need for comprehensive curricula increases with the escalating number of young and elder people needing help and the widespread prejudice against them. Production and distribution of such materials could promote and spread the best ideas and practices.
Maria believes that for the socially and mentally disabled and drug addicts, every positive experience is worth millions. For people who suffer from difficult and extreme experiences, every good memory has tremendous meaning and may change the course of their lives. Therefore, her ultimate dream is to provide people with space and opportunity–where for the first time they can create something they own and want to remember. To do this, Maria engages different groups in integrated activities, empowers the disabled to be teachers of the abled, and develops mechanisms for sharing best practices in order for her work to spread.
Maria is purposely working with a diverse group of socially disabled people. With EU, city, and Soros funding, her organization–the Bielskie Association Grodzki Theater–brings together people with mental, physical, and psychological disabilities, drug addictions, victims of poverty and violence, neglected children, and people with behavioral problems. Maria further integrates them with those not affected by social dislocation. Groups develop and work together on their own ideas for performances, artwork, and other activities that are eventually featured in an annual festival. The festival is widely promoted and draws in many participants. High visibility brings in many interested organizations and institutions to learn about Maria's work.
Through the program, disabled participants are enabled as they teach the very audiences and peers they are isolated from. On a regular basis, Maria works with 200 people with different social, mental, and psychological problems. Every group prepares its own performance for an audience of at least 100 people at schools, institutions, and social care centers. By 2002, more than 300 teachers were trained and Maria developed permanent partnerships with 13 social care centers and drug rehabilitation centers where her workshops have been incorporated into existing therapy programs. Maria has already reached 25 programs.
Maria is consistently trying to further the development of her program. Instructors have begun conducting training workshops for teachers and therapists to educate them on new techniques and methods for activating youth in schools. Several thousand people receive publications regarding the association's activities including books, a newsletter, films, and other promotional tools. The newsletter Here We Are, (4000 readers) serves as a presentation platform for participants–a promotional tool and a mechanism for changing perspectives and breaking stereotypes about the socially disabled. Maria is developing educational tools and materials to be distributed among teachers and therapists that describe the step-by-step process of introducing the program in a given location or institution. In addition, she is now using more advanced technologies like the Internet and computer animation, both of which are helpful in stimulating creativity in the most severely mentally disabled. Along with development of the program itself, Maria is focusing on building the financial sustainability of the organization through an endowment fund and the cultivation of stable partners who can sustain the organization in the long run. Maria envisions the Association turning into a regional center that will both train instructors and radiate information and knowledge to other places in the region; she has developed a Europewide plan for further expansion. Through her work with the Open Society Institute in Budapest, Maria's organization may become the Soros Foundation's grant-making institution, thereby creating a new mechanism by which Maria can spread her work throughout Poland and other Central European countries.
Throughout her life, Maria has made the impossible possible. Although she was shy, she overcame her timid ways to pursue her one great love–theater. During Soviet times, when traveling abroad was difficult, Maria managed to find a way to get to the United States. While studying theater and art, she encountered a famous Vermont-based theater group created by Peter Schuman called "Bread & Puppet." It modeled a unique combination of art, social work, and activism. Inspired by how theater can create space for social interaction, she decided to learn more about the social applications of art and theater. In difficult transitory times, Maria managed to organize the trip and get financial support from her university so she could spend a year in the U.S. learning and understanding the different dimensions of theater.
In 1991 Maria graduated from her university and moved to Bielsko-Biała where she was hired by a theater. Her goal was to mobilize young people around theater and promote art among students in primary and high schools. She was successful in mobilizing young students and formed a rotating group of kids from vocational schools who would work on preparing performances and their artwork.
In 1996, Maria was preparing herself for a journalists' competition presenting the work of nonprofit organizations. She wanted to write an article about the drug-addict therapy center in her town. Her first visit to the center was stressful. Young people were dressed in uniforms; most were bald, sad, and distant. She promised herself that she would never go back there again, but there was something about the atmosphere that attracted her. There was a sort of mystery and interest in the faces of those young people. She could not shake the youngsters from her mind, and a few months later, she went back to the center as a volunteer to engage young people in theater workshops.
Her first visits to the therapy center were not easy. She had no idea how to deal with teenagers who had faced dramatic and traumatic experiences. Maria sensed that the youngsters had a tremendous need to create something they could own, something they could do by themselves. She looked at them as she would any other youngsters who had dreams and ideas and wanted to make something of themselves. Her first groups consisted of 10 to 12 people between the ages of 13 and 18. They began to prepare a play. For the first time, the youngsters could create their own story with support and backing from somebody who believed in them. For two years, Maria volunteered at the center. Every day was a lesson. It was an exciting time, but also difficult because, while Maria had strong support from the center, more young people were joining the program and the need for space where they could express themselves was increasing.
In 1997 a new director was appointed to the town's theater. He had heard that Maria was looking for a space where her volunteer work could have more impact, and he struck a deal by which she had enough space to launch her own educational program. Inspired by the work of a colleague-actor who had been doing theater work with a mental institution's patients, Maria decided to incorporate other socially disabled groups into the program. The educational program started to grow and soon children from kindergartens, groups of youth without any disabilities or problems, and socially disabled youngsters collectively participated in creative learning. In the autumn of 2000, the educational program received the news that it would be shut down because a new director was getting rid of unprofitable, social initiatives. Maria decided to transfer her educational program to the Association Grodzki Theater where it has been ever since.