Natalya Plotnikova knows firsthand how isolating the life of a person with disabilities can be. At the age of 11 months, she fell off a table and broke her spine. Since then, she has used crutches and a wheelchair. In 2000, Natalya founded Opa Singillar (“Sisters”) Qibray Society for Women with Disabilities, an NGO that provides legal and psychological support and hard skills seminars for women and girls with disabilities living in Qibray district outside Tashkent, Uzbekistan. For years, difficulties with financing hindered the organization’s development. Thanks to an Institutional Development Grant (IDG) from USAID’s Social Innovation in Central Asia (SICA) project, Natalya and her team have developed and implemented a new strategic plan that boosts their number of beneficiaries and donors. The grant has also allowed Natalya to fully refurbish her office to provide access for all beneficiaries using wheelchairs.
Natalya recalls how the dream of being a part of community guided her through the difficult years of childhood. “I remember vividly some of my early memories like lying in a room alone and hearing other children laughing and playing outside,” she says. “I remember how I longed to be part of them, to be accepted. I’d sit there dreaming that one day, when I am a grownup, I will do something useful and important, so that other people finally see me for who I am.”
Today, Natalya says her dream has materialized in the work and the leadership that she provides for Opa Singillar—a cozy and supportive community center that many women and girls with mental and physical disabilities across Qibray call a second home.
Natalya is quick to note that Opa Singillar’s center was not always so welcoming. Up until October 2022, the organization changed addresses 10 times. None of the locations suited the needs of her beneficiaries. Their last address was a house in a “derelict state” with no central heating, which made it next to impossible to conduct classes and workshops during wintertime. “For many newcomer participants and their parents, these conditions were immediate put-offs, and some would not return precisely for this reason,” Natalya says. “It was clear to me that we had to find means to change this.”
In 2022, Natalya’s team won SICA’s Institutional Development Grant. The team received training from SICA experts on fundraising and strategic development, which allowed them to drastically review Opa Singillar’s current activities and develop a new strategic development plan. This new plan focuses on service enhancement, advertising, and fundraising. Most importantly, the organization made a major overhaul of the center and equipped it with a heating system, wheelchair-friendly access, several new studios, and a kitchen to conduct workshops.
The change was an immediate success. Within just a month of renovation, the organization’s participation rates doubled from 6 or 7 participants to over 15 people per session. Refurbished facilities offered space to launch new workshops in culinary arts, psychology, and sewing. In October 2022, the team hosted an official opening of the center. Wide media coverage of the event attracted an influx of people wanting to become a part of Opa Singillar.
“It is a relief to see the office finally renovated, as it has a direct impact on our work,” says Gulfiya Kalimulina, project coordinator at Opa Singillar. “Now that the building is warm and convenient for our beneficiaries, we can expand our services and provide new opportunities for people in need.”
Natalya notes that SICA’s Institutional Development Program has provided much more than just a renovated space, an updated strategy, or training workshops for her employees. “The most important thing we have gained is a completely changed perspective of the organization’s development. We learned how to leverage opportunities for our benefit,” she shares. In the latter half of 2022, the organization doubled fundraising money and attracted several new donors that provided free services and facilities, including air conditioners and outdoor surveillance cameras.
“My mission is empowering Uzbekistani girls with disabilities and inspiring them to become better versions of themselves. It always leaves me mesmerized when girls that entered with their eyes glued to the floor eventually find their dreams and start pursuing professions they have always wanted,” Natalya concludes. “Seeing them realize the world beyond their mahalla [district] is so big and full of opportunities that they can study anywhere and become almost anything they want is something I really enjoy. I am thankful for the Institutional Development Grant for helping me enhance our services.”
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